At Codev, managing workers remotely is at the core of what we do, and is a hurdle that many of our clients have to overcome. I’ve researched the topic and compared the research to my experience managing remote teams, both software developers as well as non-technical teams. I’ve distilled it down to three keys to successful remote management. Originally, I intended to just jot them all down in one post, but due to time constraints, I will just introduce the first one in this post today.

Remote Management Key #1 – Informal Communication = Relationships

You expected communication to be first on the list, I know, but communication alone isn’t enough.  For example, I can go to the hardware store and communicate effectively about locating the nails I need to fix my deck, and the guy stocking the shelves can help me effectively.  This is because my need is simple and can be resolved in two words, “Aisle 9.”  Business problems are not as simple, and often take months or years to solve, and software development problems can be even worse.  We need something beyond transactional communication.

Aren’t systems the answer?  The SAAS ticketing system you use for logging defects is necessary, but doesn’t give me the full story when a gap in the design has caused a set of bugs that will delay our release by two weeks. My video conferencing software helps me run my meetings effectively, but I didn’t know that earlier that day someone took their own life by jumping from the roof of the 20 story building next door, and the whole community is in shock. I thought the team just wasn’t engaged.  No, we need more than systems and tools (although they can be useful and will be addressed in a future post.)

What about regular meetings?  Isn’t that where communication happens?  Well, yes and no.  Meetings can provide venues for communication, but an effective meeting, by definition, is a group of people meeting for a defined purpose for a set amount of time.  You can’t have a meeting to cover everything, and in group settings there are natural suppressors on “bad news” and risky opinions.  Meetings may be necessary, but are often designed to formalize and centralize communication in a colocated environment rather than serve the overall communication needs of a business.

So what is the answer to getting past transactional communication and creating an environment for effective remote management? The answer starts with informal communication, but that is the prescription, not the cure.  The cure is relationships.  As human beings we naturally form relationships with those we interact with.  Some are deep while others are shallow, but neither are formed in structured meetings or through corporate digital systems.  The few moments of small talk before and after meetings, the chance encounters in the lunchroom and informal discussions that happen as part of peer-to-peer introductions all are major opportunities to form relationships that are often overlooked by remote managers.

Think of the last time you were introduced to someone in a professional setting.  After the exchange of names, and perhaps backgrounds or titles, was your next line something like, “Well let’s get this networking interaction started.  I have an agenda of 3 topics to discuss with you, and would like to get through them so I can get onto the next introduction as soon as possible.”  Of course not.  You treated each other as human beings, searched for common interests, and shared facts about yourselves, often personal facts.  Perhaps it didn’t go well, and the only common interest you could find was the weather, but it still is a drastically different conversation than many remote managers have with their teams.

To summarize, the first key to successful remote management is to create real, personal relationships with the people you are working with. You don’t have to be colocated to do this.  You just need to constantly invest in informal interactions, just as you do with the person in the next office or cubicle from you right now.  Get to an online meeting 5 minutes early and chit chat with those who are there.  Ask about their families. Find common interests.  Create messaging groups or rooms or channels, depending on what software you use, for informal conversations.  If you don’t have a system, start with Skype or Hangouts and go from there.  DO NOT mistakenly label this interaction as a waste of time.  Informal communication is vital to building internal relationships and vital to your success as a remote manager.  If you don’t have time to build relationships with your people, then you don’t have time to be a manager.  It is time to call your boss and ask to pass that responsibility on to someone else.