The manager’s manual for digital work

A field guide to building trust and creating clarity outside the traditional structure of the workplace

By the team at Slack12th March 2020Illustration by Pete Ryan

From a distance, remote work sounds like a professional Shangri-La: shorter commutes (or no commute at all), added flexibility, even higher productivity.

But if you’re new to telecommuting, or transitioning to it temporarily, there’s going to be a learning curve. This is particularly true for managers, who might find a lack of visibility to their reports disorientating. All the while, the absence of face-to-face interactions – along with the natural rhythm and structure of office life – can be isolating for employees.

Thankfully, managers can clear these obstacles with a little practice and planning. Each day, teams all over the world work remotely in Slack, and naturally, several of Slack’s own veteran managers are fully remote. To help others make a smooth transition to this unique way of working, we’ve rounded up their most helpful tips for inspiring trust, clarity and performance – no matter their team’s location.

1. Create opportunities for connection

The lack of colleagues asking, ‘Hey, want to get a coffee?’ or the silence of your own home can be bewildering for those not accustomed to working remotely. Here are a few tactics to help your team feel integrated from afar:

  • Start a #team-random Slack channel for water cooler talk. This not only lightens the mood but creates a shared culture, too. If social chatter happens in your team’s work channel, clarify that conversations should stay on topic there, but banter is OK in #team-random.
  • Begin team meetings with an icebreaker. Whether it’s a digital tour of an employee’s home, a photo that’s important to them or a show and tell of a cherished item, this great get-to-know-you exercise can create important and lasting bonds among team members.
  • Celebrate successes, no matter how small. Working from home doesn’t mean that you should forgo opportunities to praise excellent work, celebrate birthdays or generally find ways to have a great time together. Host a ‘Zoom toast’ as a sort of digital happy hour at the end of the day, where each person brings their favourite drink to a Zoom meeting and takes turns recognising each other’s accomplishments. It’s an easy way to stoke morale.

While these situations might not feel as natural as their in-office equivalent, they help to create stability for your employees. To that effect, try to avoid cancelling any regularly scheduled 1:1 meetings or team meetings (but feel free to delete meetings that you might suddenly realise are unnecessary).

2. Check in with your team about their remote experience

Remote work, particularly for an extended period of time, might be uncharted territory for your employees. In your initial remote 1:1 meetings, make time for a pulse check to see how your reports are doing. Here are a few example questions to kick-start the conversation:

  • What excites you about working remotely?
  • What scares you?
  • How is this a great opportunity?
  • How can I best support you through this time?
  • What might I misunderstand about your remote working style?

3. Be available

Remote employees need to know that they are being supported beyond the confines of regular check-ins, especially if they’re used to being able to walk over to your desk and ask a quick question. At Slack, we create digital office hours when reports can ‘drop in’ and chat with their managers over Zoom. You can use the appointment feature in Google Calendar if you want to provide privacy, or just create a meeting with a Zoom link that anyone can join.

Another thing to consider: a checklist of the people that you’d like to ping each day – people that you would ordinarily bump into at the office. This can be a morning check-in or a midday message of ‘How’s it going?’

4. Strive for clarity

Eliminate misunderstandings by over-communicating. Don’t make assumptions about things that may seem obvious to you. Describe exactly what you mean, even if you think that you’re repeating yourself; not everyone has the same information that you do. Because team members must communicate more than they’re used to, it’s important for managers to model this behaviour. Here are a few tactics that can help:

  • Edit. Edit. Edit. Read over your messages before sending to make sure that they’re driving the message that you intend.
  • Ask an explicit question at the end of your posts, such as ‘Is there anything I’m not adding that you think is relevant?’ or ‘Does anyone else have further context to add?’
  • Use 1:1 Slack channels. Direct messages trigger notifications that can distract from important work, so it’s a good idea to use them only when necessary. We’ve found that setting up 1:1 channels is a great way to leave non-urgent notes for each other throughout the week (which will still show up as ‘unread’ in the sidebar without pinging your reports ad nauseam).
  • Insist on specifics. When you spot phrases such as ‘Let’s circle back’ or ‘Great idea, let’s do that’, these are perfect opportunities to intervene for clarity. Who should circle back? Where and when? A good rule of thumb is to make sure that every action item has a clear owner, channel and deadline.

5. Focus on results, not time spent

Remote management requires a shift in mindset from focusing on employees’ time to focusing on their output. Instead of worrying about your employees’ whereabouts during the day, focus on assigning clear deliverables that are easy to assess from a distance.

  • Host a huddle meeting in Slack. In your team channel, ask everyone to post their deliverables for the week, call attention to blockers and dependencies and tick things off as they get completed. This gives the entire team visibility into each other’s work and helps prevent duplication.
  • Set a custom Slack status. If you’re working from a coffee shop where it might be noisy and you won’t be able to take a call, indicate that. If you want some heads-down time, let your team know that you’re in focus mode.

6. Remember, you can always have a quick chat in a call

A lot of important non-verbal communication happens when people are sharing a physical office space. If a thread or discussion is becoming increasingly unclear, emotions are escalating or the right people aren’t being looped into the conversation, call for a ‘time out’ from the conversation and have it face to face. Try these shortcuts to create a connection on the fly:

  • Type /call to immediately start a Slack call with that person or channel
  • Type /zoom to generate a zoom meeting link – anyone in that channel or direct message will be given the option to join

Ultimately, you know your team best. Leverage your knowledge of the team’s dynamics and individual working styles to support your employees in the way that makes the most sense to you.

Thank you to Sar Warner, Amy Dearking, Jen Mingo and Rob Campbell of Slack for sharing the insights included in this post.

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