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  • Writer's pictureMark Robinson

Surviving the Coronavirus: A Crash Course in Managing Teams Remotely

I work with a lot of remote teams. It’s different than sitting in the office with the same people each day because working remotely forces you to establish a communication pattern that lets you understand what people who you cannot see are up to. When remote management was new to me, I found it challenging because I was used to seeing someone react to what I was saying which told me if “they got it” or if I needed to clarify what I was trying to explain.

Looking back on my early experiences, I made a lot of mistakes that, had I applied a bit more thought, I could have avoided a lot of pain and anguish.

My favorite story was when I was setting a delivery date with a remote team in India. I sent a simple email saying that I would like a deliverable to be completed by 3/4/2011. They said that would be great. When 3/4/2011 arrived…no deliverable. I called them up and asked what the problem was and they said…we will have it done by April 3, 2011. I had not accounted for the fact that they came from a region that listed the date as day, month, year rather than month, day and year. There are actually a lot of these regional/remote pitfalls. Regardless of how the misunderstanding took place, it was ultimately my responsibility to communicate adequately.

With the Coronavirus here, and a lot of companies asking their employees to work from home, I thought that it was a good idea to share some thoughts on how people can effectively work remotely.

I will break this down to a couple of key topics:

Deliverables & Communication

All companies run on deadlines and deliverables. In companies where the output has a lot of dependencies like software development, where one line of code might be dependent on another line of code, tracking deadlines and deliverables for remote people is crucial. To keep the deliverables rolling in, here are some lessons I have learned over the years:

First, always set clearly understandable deadlines for all deliverables. It’s not just about giving someone the right date format when you communicate with them. It’s also about making sure that they know what you expect of them:

  • Tell them what you are asking them to do. “I want you to paint the wall blue.”

  • Explain to them what form you want the deliverable to be. “I want the paint to be evenly painted so please spray the paint on rather than brush it on.”

  • Tell them what constitutes good quality. “When you are done painting the wall blue, I should not be able to see the original color (which was white).” Getting a poor deliverable on time is usually worse than getting a great delivery late.

Second, I do not care what hours people keep as long as they hit their deadlines and deliverables. I have generally found that people who work from home tend to start their day earlier and end their day earlier. As long as they are doing their work and make themselves available to talk when needed, I do not care what their hours are. Well-motivated people can hit their milestones even if they are hitting the gym in the middle of the day.

Third, even if we are all working remotely, how I track work and how you communicate does not change. Do not add complicated systems just to accommodate the fact that everyone is working from home to avoid getting sick. I use Skype, Email, Phone, Slack and Messages (Mac) during the regular course of my day. If your team has a communication or a tool routine already…DO NOT CHANGE IT. You do not want them to have a learning curve to overcome just so that they can complete their work. A big part about working remotely is removing friction rather that adding to it.

Fourth, use working remotely as an opportunity for the team to complete things that require a lot of uninterrupted time. The best example I have is software documentation. Nobody likes to do it but it needs to get done at some point. Working remotely is really conducive to completing those types of projects.

Fifth, work sustainably. One big downside to working remotely is that it blurs the lines between work and homelife. Ask people how they are doing. If they sound tired, ask them why. If they are tired because they are watching Hunters, Season 1 on Amazon, tell them not to spoil it for the rest of us and that they should stick to a 2 episode max, lest they will be compelled to watch it all night (but I digress).

Sixth, if my bad joke was not enough to clue you in, keep things lite. Diseases that are roaming through the population claiming lives are scary to a lot of people. Assume it is scary for your team and keep the drama in meetings down to a minimum, and self-deprecating humor at a maximum.

Seventh, establish a regular pattern of communication. Set daily check-ins. Give people a voice to communicate to the rest of the team. Tell the members of your team how they can reach you. It’s important for your team to know how they can communicate and when it is off limits. Tell them if there is a special way to reach you if there is something urgent.

Eight, have 1:1 meetings with the members of your team. It keeps them in touch and helps them to fee less isolated. I have several of these each day and I find them to be incredibly valuable. Not only does it keep me informed about what is on their minds, I get to understand their state of mind and have some conduit to discuss problems with them privately. Most of my 1:1 meetings last 15 to 30 minutes and as a manager, I think they are the best part of my work day.

Work Setting

Most people who work from home are not necessarily set up for it. I am lucky because I have an office in my house. Many people work from their kitchen table. They might have pets, bad cell service, poor internet, kids, goldfish, etc. They have may actually have a life outside of work and it may be a bit distracting when they work from home. As a manager, you should have empathy for the people on your team. For some, working from home is difficult. Understand that. If someone is getting worked up, suggest they get out of their house regularly. Every day, rain or shine, I walk to Peets Coffee or Blue Bottle Coffee or Verve Coffee (I know…I have a problem with coffee - I will work on it). Many people might start regarding their homes as prison after a while…let them out. Tell them not to shake hands or touch their face and give them enough Purell to bathe in but let them out.

Keeping your team motivated and engaged

When you have team calls, celebrate victories as a team and create teaching moments out of failures. I always ask my teams what went well with what they are working on. I package the question a little differently for everyone, but the ultimate goal is to share successes. I will also ask everyone what did not go right. You will be surprised how cathartic it is to talk about how you screwed something up and what you will do to avoid the problem in the future. It benefits everyone and talking about how you learned from a mistake not only helps the rest of the team learn but also helps you to escape from it. I got it out…nobody beat me over the head for it. It’s OK…I can move on. People who work remotely often feel cut off and like they are no longer important. Positive, regular communication is a great way to motivate people and make them feel important.

I am sure there are an endless number of lessons to teach on the topic of working remotely but these are the ones that I have found helpful thus far.

Stay happy, healthy and safe and take daily Purell baths until this thing is over. 

- Mark Robinson

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