(This article was originally published on Gitlab)
Traits of a great remote manager
Many traits found in superb remote managers are also found in managers of colocated teams, though there are nuances to serving, leading, and guiding when managing teams that you do not see in-person each day.
Managing remotely is much like managing in-person, but there are certain traits of outsized importance for the former. Therefore, we're detailing considerations for being an excellent remote manager.
Self-awareness is critical for relationship building and trust. The reality is that people prefer to learn, and to be managed, differently. GitLab's CEO goes so far as to publicize his communication preferences and flaws, which requires a high degree of self-awareness, a low level of shame, and a penchant for transparency.
Self-aware managers will be open with reports on their learning and communication preferences, enabling those who report to them to interact without ambiguity.
Be highly sensitive to micromanaging. Particularly for new remote managers, you may be inclined to "check in" on projects with increased frequency given the inability to see someone working in the same physical space. This is a destructive practice. Instead, have an open discussion with a direct report on communication and work styles, and find a mechanism that suits all parties.
What a manager perceives as proactively working to keep a project on track can be received as toxic micromanagement by a direct report. Without an open channel to communicate preferences, this can quickly erode a working relationship.
Empathy and kindness are core to being a great remote manager. It can be challenging to put yourself in the shoes of a direct report using text communication and Zoom calls. In-person interactions allow for body language to be more easily read. In a remote setting, managers must instead be proactive in asking direct reports how life is going and what their learning preferences are.
For a greater understanding of the importance of empathy in a manager, read GitLab's guide to combating burnout, isolation, and anxiety.
Working to have no ego, recognizing that people are not their work, and having short toes will go a long way to building trust as a manager. The humility required to be a servant-leader is rare, and is of great importance in a remote setting. Particularly for reports who are acclimating to their first remote role, managers may need to go above and beyond to lead by example.
In many cases, reports will be discovering in real-time how they prefer to be managed remotely. Maintaining the perspective that managers excel by serving is critical to building confidence in a direct report.
People tend to feel more guilty about asking a manager for step-by-step guidance in a remote setting — e.g. "I'm bothering them in their home!" To proactively address this, be sure to reinforce that you (as a manager) are not bothered by sincere requests for assistance.
In sum, remote managers should operate from a standpoint of wanting others to succeed. In the event that critical feedback must be delivered, strive to surface issues constructively and do so in a 1-1 setting.
A bias for documentation
Managers are often stretched for time. A critical, though common, mistake is to assume that you can earn back time by not communicating in full to one's direct reports. Great remote managers will devote time to writing things down. GitLab's handbook-first approach to documentation encourages managers to contextualize thoughts in text.
Transmitting expectations, updates, and feedback through text is highly respectful. It enables a direct report to ingest information at their own pace, and it removes margin for misinterpretation. Written words are more easily questioned, thereby creating a more direct path to absolute truth and understanding.
Onboarding is critical in equipping a new report with the tools and understanding they need to thrive at a company. A manager must be intentional about setting up guardrails to ensure that onboarding is not derailed. This is enabled through a long-term mindset. The depth and thoroughness of onboarding — as well as how much onboarding a new hire is cleared to complete — is linked to long-term success.
There is always work to be done, and a manager must make a conscious decision to allow a new hire to focus on onboarding instead of work during the critical early weeks, believing that in doing so, they are enabling long-term efficiencies and prioritizing that over short-term task elimination.
Numerous studies have shown that most employers rank poorly in onboarding quality, despite realities that losing an employee to poor onboarding is not cheap and a strong onboarding process boosts new hire retention and productivity.
Select the right Onboarding Buddy
GitLab's use of Onboarding Buddies is critical to the overall success of onboarding.
The manager should be intentional about selecting an onboarding buddy. Aim to select an onboarding buddy that complements the new hire. For example, if the new hire is inexperienced in GitLab, consider selecting an onboarding buddy who is proficient in using and teaching GitLab. If the new hire has never worked remotely before, consider selecting an onboarding buddy with a history of working remotely.
Balance self-learning and nurturing
In a remote setting, it's vital that a new hire recognize the importance of working handbook-first. This reality needs to be balanced with nurturing — an empathetic approach to working with a colleague. During onboarding, ask for feedback on this. A manager should be willing and able to adapt to a new hire's preferred communication methods, and be willing to iterate on this.
A natural inclination when managing a team is to manage people — the individuals. In a remote setting, consider focusing management efforts first on process. GitLab operates handbook-first, which is to say that everything which can be documented, is.
To better understand how this impacts management style, consider this example. Each time a manager is asked a question by a direct report, there is a loss of productivity and focus in answering. If this answer is delivered verbally and privately, its benefit is highly specific and ephemeral. If, however, the manager considers the answer, documents it in a searchable location, and answers with a link, the process of answering becomes far more useful long-term.
In the latter case, this act of managing a process instead of a person creates outsized long-term efficiency. Every future direct report who has the same question will now be able to side-step the interruption and locate the answer themselves, creating two positive loops in the process. One, new hires recognize that they are empowered to search for answers, securing important information to keep projects moving even when their manager is on vacation, out of the office, or engaged in other work.
This should lead to fewer blockers, less dysfunction, greater autonomy, improved mental health, and greater productivity. Two, managers carve out more bandwidth in their day to focus, rather than re-answering questions.
It is the job of a manager to ensure a direct report has what they need to be successful on an ongoing basis. By documenting process, guides, solutions, how-tos, and policies, a manager is practicing servant leadership in a powerful way.
If your company has yet to implement their own handbook, start now and start small. Don't be overwhelmed with the notion of building a complete handbook from the get-go; simply start with one process, then document the next, and so on. This is the power of iteration. GitLab (the company) uses GitLab (the product to build and maintain our public-facing handbook, and options from Almanac and Trainual are available as well.
In the event that a direct report asks a question that has yet to be documented, agree to document the eventual solution so that the work put forth in answering benefits a wider swath of people.
By embracing a documentarian mindset as a manager, you show that you are proactively and transparently working to equip your direct report(s) with everything they need to succeed.
This may feel as if it's placing an added burden on a manager. The reality is that short-term pangs derived from time spent on documenting will be greatly overshadowed by long-term efficiencies. If you, as a manager, believe that you "simply don't have time to document," pause and consider the current scenario from a perspective involving more than yourself.
If you don't have time to do it right, when will you find time to do it over?
Lean on a mentor
Even for those who have managed colocated teams for decades, the thought of managing teams which are distributed globally can be daunting. Managing remotely is a skill that can be taught and learned, and much of what is gleaned through colocated management experience can guide one's journey through remote management.
For those new to managing remotely, consider shadowing someone with experience and establishing a mentor-mentee relationship.
If you feel comfortable with the softer skills, pay close attention to the processes used by remote managers. For example, you can't walk by a report's desk and get a feel for how things are going, so many remote managers utilize an ongoing Google Doc agenda (or a dedicated tool, such as Fellow) where notes, blockers, etc. can be chronicled. Checking a living, evolving document as a mechanism for engagement may require building a new habit.
Discuss learning preferences
Learning is personal. Not only does it vary from person to person, but it can vary from project to project. It's important to understand the breadth of learning styles, and have continual conversations that take this into account. Many managers will ask their reports to take a personality test, or ask what their preference learning style is, during the first week working together. Unfortunately, that exploration typically ends there.
Remote managers should view this as a perpetual item for discussion. As the relationship evolves, skills are built, and experiences are gained, it's possible that one's preferred style will shift.
Managers of global teams should also anticipate a variety of styles to be represented in their team. This encourages diversity, and it requires a manager to be cognizant of what style they're interacting with when bouncing between conversations. In a colocated space, reports may flex their style to more closely align with people they are in physical proximity to.
Focus on career progression
A common concern of remote workers is the perceived inability to further their career while outside of an office. This is often seen in hybrid-remote companies, where remote employees may wonder if team members who commute into the office will be better positioned for raises and promotion opportunities.
Great remote managers will proactively ask about one's career goals, and frequently discuss how a report is moving towards a particular career objective.
Research from Headlamp shows that 82% of workers said they would be more engaged in their work if their managers regularly discussed their career aspirations but only 16% of employees reported having those conversations on a regular basis. By having regular conversations about career advancement with your remote team, you can build a more connected and engaged workforce.
GitLab favors more frequent conversations on this topic — even during routine 1-1 conversations — as opposed to waiting until an annual review cycle.
Managing non-remote team members
In an all-remote environment, where every single member works outside of a centralized company office, you won't be put in a situation where a remote manager must manage a non-remote team member.
However, it is conceivable that a remote leader would manage a colocated third-party team. For example, a remote public relations (PR) manager overseeing a colocated agency team on contract. In hybrid-remote companies, this scenario is more common, as a subset of the company commutes into a physical office while others work remotely.
This arrangement is best addressed when colocated members adopt remote-first communication and workflow practices. Managing these teams may require additional coaching to use tools like Zoom and Slack in place of in-person communication, even if it feels unnatural, in order to treat everyone as equally as possible.
GitLab Knowledge Assessment: Being a great remote manager
Anyone can test their knowledge on being a great remote manager by completing the knowledge assessment. Earn at least an 80% or higher on the assessment to receive a passing score. Once the quiz has been passed, you will receive an email acknowledging the completion from GitLab. We are in the process of designing a GitLab Remote Certification and completion of the assessment will be one requirement in obtaining the certification. If you have questions, please reach out to our Learning & Development team at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is this advice any good?
GitLab is the world's largest all-remote company. They are 100% remote, with no company-owned offices anywhere on the planet. They have over 1,300 team members in more than 65 countries. The primary contributor to this article (Darren Murph, GitLab's Head of Remote) has over 15 years of experience working in and reporting on colocated companies, hybrid-remote companies, and all-remote companies of various scale.
Just as it is valid to ask if GitLab's product is any good, we want to be transparent about their expertise in the field of remote work.
Contribute your lessons
Gitlab believes that remote managers can learn from one another, and direct reports who admire their remote manager can inform others on how to manage well. If you have an anecdote, tip, or experience to share that would benefit the greater world, consider creating a merge request and adding a contribution to their page.
Lastly, check out these videos for more on how to be a great remote manager:
In this video, Darren Murph, Head of Remote at GitLab sits down with Jeff Frick for a Digital CUBE Conversation about the way the global Covid-19 crisis is affecting the way people work, and work from home. Discover more in GitLab's Remote Work playlist.