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The top 4 remote work challenges (and how to help your team overcome them)

The manager’s playbook for supporting remote work and hybrid teams

May 13, 2021

More flexibility, less traffic, more time with your kiddos or doggos, and all pajama pants. For many, there’s a lot to love (or at least romanticize) about remote work — but with the good, also comes a pandora’s box full of new, unique challenges.

When you don’t have serendipitous snack kitchen chats and can’t swivel in your chair to diffuse tension with a teammate, communication issues can be greatly amplified. Small misunderstandings morph into major hurdles in team dynamics. It’s harder to keep tabs on what everyone is working on, opening the door for problems like micromanagement and mistrust to slip in. Building team culture over Zoom just sounds exhausting. And, while many love to champion the “freedom and flexibility” that comes with working from home, in reality, it can actually take a major toll on people’s ability to maintain a healthy work-life balance.

And that’s just the beginning. As offices around the world start to open back up, it’s likely that many teams will become hybrid — with some teammates opting to work at HQ and others choosing to remain remote workers. When part of your team is remote, it’s even easier for folks to feel left out or disconnected. Water cooler conversation that happens naturally between in-office folks will be missed by remote team members, which can create information silos and gaps. And it will be even more difficult to find the right tools and processes that work across both groups.

In this article, we’ll dive deep into some of the biggest challenges with remote work and hybrid work (and their underlying problems) and arm you with strategies to support your team through overcoming them.

Challenge #1: Your team is burned out

Unmotivated, cynical, overwhelmed, frustrated, irritated, or just plain blah — these are all feelings associated with burnout.

If you’ve ever felt this way (or know a teammate who has), you’re not alone. According to a Gallup workplace survey, nearly 8 in 10 full-time workers say they experience burnout on the job sometimes and almost 28% experience it “often” or “always.”

Burnout is so widespread that it’s even been recognized by the World Health Organization (WHO) and it has some serious, lasting implications for individuals and teams.

According to Gallup, “employees who experience high levels of burnout are 63% more likely to take a sick day, 13% less confident in their performance, and 23% more likely to visit the emergency room.”

For teams, productivity and engagement are the first things to take a hit. Deadlines get missed. Meetings get skipped. Folks don’t feel inspired to do their best work and teammates stop trusting each other to get the job done. Over time, teams experiencing burnout are more likely to lose good talent too, as folks leave to find motivation, fulfillment, or a sense of calm elsewhere.

Why remote teams are more susceptible to burnout

Burnout is an even bigger issue for remote teams, amplified by distance, personal stressors, and lack of face-to-face communication.

  • Work-life balance gets out of whack: It can be hard to “turn it off” when you start working and set boundaries in terms of when the workday starts and ends. Lines quickly become blurred between work and our personal lives, and people tend to work too much or too little.
  • It’s harder to align schedules: At home, remote workers might have different responsibilities and different hours they work best. Having too rigid a schedule can alienate people, especially when your team is hybrid or spread across time zones.
  • Job expectations don’t match the WFH reality: Folks are often juggling more responsibilities all at once — balancing work with things like childcare, sharing space with a roommate, and other things that can come up at home.
  • Virtual meetings add to the chaos: There’s a tendency to over-index on FaceTime to stay connected, so meetings multiply at the expense of focus time.
  • It’s lonely at the home office: It’s a lot harder to casually connect with your teammates when you’re remote — there's no office environment to facilitate social interaction — and the lack of face-to-face interaction can be isolating for some.
  • Distance leads to micromanagement: Managing remote teams can be a challenge. Distance can lead to questions of what remote team members are up to and how effective they are with their time.

This team is on fire: Strategies to help remote teams battle burnout

A comprehensive guide to solving for remote burnout

What managers can do to battle burnout and support remote teams

  • Give individuals more control over their schedules: For folks juggling responsibilities at home, or spread across different time zones and workspaces, the idea of a traditional 9-to-5 just isn’t realistic. Be flexible. Encourage folks to work during the hours they feel most productive.
  • Try windowed work: It’s hard to focus when you only have 30 minutes here and there to work. You can avoid this problem by employing windowed work, which is the idea that your team only needs to be online for collaboration for a subset of hours. (For our team, it’s 10 am to 3 pm PT.)
  • Reevaluate your meetings each quarter: For each meeting on your team’s calendar, ask yourself the following.
    • What’s its intended purpose? (Ex: create stronger team bonds, communicate status updates, set a plan for the week)
    • Are there other meetings with the same purpose? Are there ways to achieve this purpose that don’t require a meeting at all?
    • Are people attending it?
    • Is it providing value to everyone in the room or just a few individuals?
  • Test out different forums for engagement: If a meeting is typically over video, ask yourself “How might we do this asynchronously?” For example, at Range, we’ve experimented with asynchronous and synchronous brainstorming. Having a mix means people have more time to think and ideate (rather than be stuck in a room for two hours and forced to be creative). It is more inclusive of people who are quieter, and you always have a digital artifact, instead of thousands of sticky notes.
  • Build in small moments to connect: On our team, we’ve found it helpful to give people more avenues to connect without adding extra meetings to the calendar. One way we do this is by using the first five minutes of every meeting for lightweight team-building. You might go around and share how you’re doing that day or answer a quick icebreaker question to get everyone chatting. If a meeting ends early, we also give folks the option to stick around and hang out together if they have time. It’s a nice way to catch up informally.

Learn more strategies for battling burnout and supporting your remote team

Challenge #2: You’ve got silos and breakdowns in your team’s communication

“Wait, what’s going on?”

“Is there a doc for that?”

“When did that get decided?”

“Ugh.. just realized another sub-team is working on this too. 🤦”

Communication is one of the most important factors in team effectiveness, and one of the most challenging ones to get right, especially when you work remotely.

Why remote teams are more susceptible to silos

For virtual team communication, there’s a whole set of new and unique challenges, like issues with technology and the lack of non-verbal communication that we as humans rely so deeply on in reading interactions with others.

  1. There’s limited water cooler conversation: When you’re remote or hybrid, it’s a lot harder to just walk over to a teammate’s desk to catch up. Without these natural moments to connect, information-sharing and collaboration can take a hit.
  2. It’s hard to read people without non-verbal cues: Body language is extremely important in helping us navigate social interactions. When you’re remote, you lose these signals, and it becomes a lot harder to read how people are actually feeling. This can create potential issues in perception that lead to misunderstandings.
  3. Not everyone is being heard: Unless your individual team is very small or very like-minded, chances are they have different communication preferences. So if you’re relying too heavily on video or meetings as your primary means of communication, you might only be hearing from the portion of the team that feels comfortable speaking up in that format.

What managers can do to solve for silos and strengthen remote communication

  • Reassess your tech stack and put it to work: Remote work tools make collaborating across spaces and timezones possible. After going remote, our team has leaned pretty heavily on some new and existing tools. Here’s what’s in our remote toolkit:
    • Slack: For quick answers to questions and team connection
    • Range: Obviously. 😀  For sharing daily updates and keeping everyone on track
    • Google Workspace: For productivity and collaborating on docs
    • Asana: For project management
    • Mural: For whiteboarding together, even though we’re apart
    • Figma: For collaborating on designs in real-time
    • CloudApp and Loom: For sending video messages, which can be more informative and lightweight than typing up an email
  • Create guidelines: For the tools with some overlap in purpose, it can be helpful to define rules of engagement. For instance, if you use Slack, email, and Zoom all for team communication, you might build guidelines around what’s communicated where and how to resolve common challenges and situations in each channel. (Ex. We use Slack for timely, short messages; email for more detailed, non-urgent messages; and Zoom for collaboration or discussion.)
  • Share daily written updates: To improve visibility and collaboration, encourage your team to share daily updates on their work that folks can read or reference later on. (Shameless plug: Range makes it easy.) This practice creates a rich written history of your team’s accomplishments and gives stakeholders context and a clear line of sight into decisions being made. On hybrid teams, it also ensures that remote workers and folks who are in the office have the same level of visibility into projects every day.
  • Create individual handbooks: Something that’s helped build more empathy on our team has been creating and sharing individual handbooks on how we like working. Each person’s handbook shares context about their WFH situation (ex: I share an office space with a curious toddler and cat) and communicates preferences around working together (ex: I prefer receiving feedback over email so I have time to process it before we meet).

Learn more ways to breakdown silos and strengthen communication on your remote team

Challenge #3: You’re struggling to build remote culture and connection that feels genuine

Fear of failure, risk adversity, negativity, and folks feeling left out or checked out. If any of these sounds like your team, you may have problems rooted in company culture.

Team culture is how people on your individual team work together and treat each other. It’s the environment and expected behaviors they know they’ll be a part of when they show up (or sign on) to work each day. Culture can impact how effective your team is at working together — your team’s communication, decision-making, and overall effectiveness — in a positive or negative way.

Good culture fuels great teamwork by making people feel supported and safe. Folks feel comfortable being themselves and taking risks, which can ultimately lead to greater innovation for your org.

Toxic culture leads to team drama, inefficient ways of working, and higher employee turnover. One in five people who quit their job cite culture as the reason for leaving according to a study by the Society of Human Resource Management. Another study found that teams who invest in culture see a much lower turnover rate (14%) than those who ignore it (48%).

Why remote teams struggle with culture

Building a healthy team culture relies heavily on things that just come more naturally when you’re all together. When you’re remote or hybrid, it’s a lot harder to get to know new team members, high five folks for bashing bugs, or gauge if people need some extra help.

  1. It’s harder to get to know each other: Getting to know a teammate virtually takes a lot more effort than doing so in person. When you miss these natural moments of connection, things that would normally bring you together, like a shared love of boba tea or the latest episode of Wandavision, can easily be missed. Hybrid teams run into the challenges with inclusion here too. If the in-office team gets lunch together every Friday, it can be easy for folks at home to feel excluded.
  2. It’s harder to know how everyone’s doing: It can be tough to pick up on how folks are actually feeling over video. This presents a new challenge for managers in supporting the team. You have to rely a lot more on people openly asking for help, which is hard for most people in normal circumstances, even harder under the spotlight of Zoom.
  3. There’s less visibility into everyone’s work: Distance can lead to questions of what remote team members are up to and how effective they are with their time. This typically stems from a lack of trust across the team and can create problems with micromanagement and silos.

What managers can do to strengthen remote culture

  • Try async team-building activities: One way to connect without adding more meetings or excluding remote folks is to lean into asynchronous team-bonding activities — things people can do in their own time that will help the team get to know each other better. You might try asking folks to share their favorite GIF every Wednesday or answering team-building questions in your daily Check-ins. To get everyone to participate, keep it lightweight.
  • Create a knowledge base: Transparency is as much about sharing information as it is about making that information easy to access. At Range, we use a team directory as our primary source of truth. When people have questions about who’s working on what or progress towards a particular goal or project, they know they can pull up the directory and quickly find what they’re looking for.
  • Show that it’s OK to be vulnerable: Getting people to open up about how they’re feeling builds trust and helps teammates connect on a deeper level. As a manager, it also helps you better support your team. To encourage people to share emotions, start by modeling the behavior yourself. If you’re having a hard day, say so. If you’re distracted by something outside of work, let them know. If an experiment you tried failed miserably, share that too. (Failure should be something folks feel safe talking about and not something they shy away from.)
  • Build a culture of gratitude: Make it a point to surface and celebrate your teammate’s accomplishments whenever you’re together. You might use the first five minutes of your weekly team meeting for ‘Thank You Time’, where folks can speak up to recognize each other’s accomplishments or say thanks to someone who helped them out that week.

Challenge #4: It’s harder to build accountability

Ever worked on a team routinely plagued with missed deadlines, broken promises, or vague expectations? Or where managers constantly nagged and micromanaged? It’s likely the team lacked accountability.

Team accountability means the team, and its individual contributors, follow through on commitments, finish projects on time, and meet set goals. It requires (and empowers) folks to take ownership of their work, communicate openly and often about commitments, and complete tasks they commit to in a timely manner.

Accountability is a hallmark of highly effective teams. Mastering accountability can help teams have better performance discussions and inspire individuals to exceed their goals. It’s intrinsically linked to results (and revenue) too. Employee engagement, according to Gallup, helps companies outperform their competitors, and can result in 21% greater profitability.

Despite the clear benefits, if your team struggles with accountability you’re not alone. 25% of remote managers say lack of accountability is one of the biggest hurdles their team needs to overcome.

Why remote teams struggle with accountability

Alignment and open communication are key components of team accountability. Both may have felt like second nature when you worked in an office environment, but working remotely can introduce new gaps.

  1. It’s harder to align on expectations: When you work remotely, or a portion of your team does, folks miss out on natural opportunities to build alignment and ask questions. Things that would normally be obvious when you work in the office (like what time the rest of the team shows up each morning) might not be. It can be harder to know what’s expected of you in terms of output, deliverables, and ways of working.
  2. Communication takes more work: Developing communication practices that successfully keep remote and hybrid teams in the loop can be daunting at first. Teammates often feel like they’re spending more time reporting on their work than getting work done. For managers, it can feel like there are endless status updates floating around in their inbox, project management tools, or both.
  3. It can be harder to feel progress and purpose: When your team is spread out, it can be easy to forget about the rest of the team and how your work fits into the bigger picture. It’s also easier to focus on individual work over collaborative projects, which ultimately changes what work gets done.

What managers can do to foster remote accountability

  • Define and document your team's ways of working: After we went fully remote, our team found it helpful to create a policy that outlined clear expectations around ways of working. In the policy, we include things like defining core work hours, windowed work, and communicating around vacation and absences. The key is transparency. Be abundantly clear about your expectations and any potential consequences, while also acknowledging that WFH presents its own unique set of challenges. Show empathy and allow for flexibility — you never know what else team members may be juggling at home.
  • Create a detailed project spec template: Project specs and one-pagers help teams create alignment and clearly define expectations. Each one should include a clear timeline (that’s specific on timezones — “code freeze goes into effect on May 11 at 5:00 pm PST”), outline project ownership (including a RACI chart), and have specific details on the deliverable (if possible, provide examples). It can be helpful to create a project spec template for your team to save time and ensure a standard set of information is included in each one.
  • Start the day with an individual planning exercise: For remote or hybrid teams, where folks naturally have more freedom and less guidance in their day-to-day, daily planning is a small practice that can help build up accountability over time. On our team, individuals create their own plan for the day every morning and share it as a part of their Check-in. Especially since going fully remote, we’ve found it to be a helpful tool in building individual autonomy and self-awareness.
  • Set team and individual OKRs: For longer-term goal-setting, you can help your team align its work with purpose by setting strong OKRs (objectives and key results). OKRs are goals that outline the why, in addition to the what and how. They help teams see how individual work ladders up into the big picture and can be a powerful way to help folks feel their impact.

Lead by example and resolve your remote work challenges

Whether you’re fighting burnout, silos, toxic culture, or accountability issues, as a manager, the most important thing you can do is to lead by example.

Share how you’re doing every day, be protective of your team’s focus time, and champion a healthy work-life balance. Model healthy behaviors around communication and recognition to show your team that these actions are valued. Be open and vulnerable, and share your own personal remote work challenges to start the discussion. And hold yourself and your team accountable to the commitments you make each day.

Be prepared to experiment, try new things, and learn from your mistakes. Most importantly, listen to your team to find out what’s working and what isn’t. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to remote work — for teams or for individuals.

Learn to support your team with Range
The top 4 remote work challenges (and how to help your team overcome them)
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