Similar to leading a team in-person, a remote manager must set up effective technology, communication, and workflows for their remote employees. Many traits found in onsite 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.
Self-awareness is critical for relationship building and trust, particularly in an all-remote setting. 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.
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.
To be a successful leader of remote teams, one must develop a level of trust in each team. A trustworthy leader of remote teams consistently provides feedback to enable team members to feel included, valued, empowered, and respected.
A remote leader must be intuitive and able to adapt to the preferences of their direct reports. Some team members prefer more or less communication from their leader, some need consistent affirmation, others prefer autonomy. The ability to ask about and adapt to these preferences is crucial. Many of these elements are viewed as unspoken needs in other organizations, but great leaders seek to clarify and remove ambiguity. This is a key element of servant leadership.
Being a remote manager means building a support system for your team, while at the same time striking a balance to hold them accountable. Building trust and maintaining transparency, frequent and open communication, and ensuring a safe working environment are critical skills.
Use weekly 1-1 meetings to discuss business topics, challenges, and focus areas to build trust. Managers can supplement formal meetings with coffee chats where no business is discussed. Listening and sharing during these discussions can facilitate more open conversations. Consider structing team meetings with a social component where team members can share the personal side of themselves.
Not everyone is capable of going fully-remote or mentally prepared to go days without a human interaction. Set up regular video chats and be sure to make space for intentional informal communication.
Being a remote manager means building a support system for your team, while at the same time striking a balance to hold them accountable. Building trust, maintaining transparency, communicating frequently and openly, and ensuring a supportive working environment are critical for success.
At GitLab, Slack is critical to our communication with each other. While it enables real-time communication, we also are careful to remain true to our asynchronous mindset, suggesting that GitLab team-members set "do not disturb" and not expect real-time answers from others all the time.
Don't underestimate a 1:1. Asynchronous communication (e.g., via text) is helpful and necessary. In some cases (e.g., to clarify misunderstandings) it can be much more effective to jump on a Zoom video call. Schedule regular Ask Me Anything (AMA) meetings so team members can meet a new leader, learn more about an existing team member, or gain clarity on a recent change.
All-remote settings empower team members to live and work where they're most fulfilled. Implementing asynchronous workflows increases efficiency and decreases dysfunction. Increasingly, operating asynchronously is necessary even in colocated companies which have team members on various floors or offices, especially when multiple time zones are involved. All-remote settings are more inclusive; for example, they provide flexibility to childcare providers who are combining work with parental responsibilities. Async work also removes time zone bias, enabling global team members to be on equal footing.
As teams grapple with transitioning from a colocated environment to a remote one, it's common to see differing levels of adaptability. For some, the transition is fairly smooth, as a remote-first infrastructure was already established. For others, the shift is thoroughly disruptive.
The amount of disruption is generally tied to two maturity factors: culture and tools. It's important to perfect the art of the handoff. To better understand how to delegate well, move your team through these phases of remote adaptation.
There is an endless and ever-changing list of options available for online collaboration. Here are a few tried and true apps and online tools to get you started on your async journey:
Want to see how GitLab does it? Here's our tool stack.
So long as your company adheres — even if unofficially — to set working hours, you'll be biased towards candidates who are in your preferred time zone.
The only way to remove that bias and open your company to a truly global and diverse workforce is to destroy the epicenter of power as it relates to working hours.
Informal communication is important, as it enables friendships to form at work related to matters other than work. Those who feel they have genuine friends at work are more likely to enjoy their job, perform at a high level, feel invested in the company, and serve others within the organization. At GitLab, we desire those outcomes as well, reinforcing our Results value.
For all-remote companies, leaders should not expect informal communication to happen naturally. There are no hallways for team members to cross paths in, no carpools to the office, etc.
If you do all-remote, do it early, do it completely, and change your work methods to accommodate it. Be intentional about informal communication. All-remote forces you to do the things you should be doing anyway, earlier. - GitLab co-founder and CEO Sid Sijbrandij
In an all-remote environment, informal communication should be formally addressed. Leaders should organize informal communication, and to whatever degree possible, design an atmosphere where team members all over the globe feel comfortable reaching out to anyone to converse about topics unrelated to work.
It's natural that working remotely leads to mostly work-related conversations with fellow team members, so everyone at GitLab is encouraged to dedicate a few hours a week to having social calls with anyone in the company.
It's a great chance to get to know who you work with, talk about everyday things and share a coffee, tea, or your favorite beverage. We want you to make friends and build relationships with the people you work with to create a more comfortable, well-rounded environment.
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.
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.
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.
Some best practices for motivating remote teams include:
GitLab's expertise in managing a remote team has been turned into a free course on Coursera!
"How to Manage a Remote Team" provides a holistic, in-depth analysis of remote team structures, phases of adaptation, and best practices for managers, leaders, and human resources professionals. It is being offered free of charge, with an optional paid certificate available.
Despite its many advantages, all-remote work isn't for everyone. It can have disadvantages for potential employees depending on their lifestyle and work preferences, as well as the organization. In the spirit of transparency, we'll also highlight counterpoints and solutions to these challenges.
Remote settings can cause a breakdown in communication skills if organizations aren't deliberate about creating ways for their people to stay connected.
It can be hard to separate personal and work life. It's important to model and encourage boundaries.
Not only do we get to know our coworkers better by seeing them in real time during video chats or Zoom calls, we also get to know their pets and families too. This visual engagement helps us relate to each other on a more personal level, so when we meet in person, we already know each other. In fact, when our team members meet face-to-face for the first time, the most surprising factor is usually each person's height.
In the video above, 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.
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 documented.
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 processes, 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?
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 Soapbox or Fellow) where notes, blockers, etc. can be chronicled. Checking a living, evolving document as a mechanism for engagement may require building a new habit.
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.
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.
In a global all-remote organization, driving results is a core value. As a manager, you have to keep many balls in the air simultaneously and shift your energy and attention to activities that will produce the greatest output (also known as "managerial leverage"). Removing roadblocks to improve productivity is a key skillset of any remote manager. Great managers will delegate activities while giving team members the full picture, encourage others to work according to GitLab's values, and set their direct reports up for success.
To improve managerial productivity:
With GitLab's commitment to transparency, team members have a great deal of visibility to what is going on throughout the organization. A manager's role is to focus the team on cross-functional activities relevant to their results.
Good communication is the key to keeping your employees in the loop. Here are a few best practices to keep your team engaged:
Transparency helps keep your team connected to the work and each other. Some best practices on working transparently include:
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 runs a quarterly Manager Challenge program to enable our people leaders with the skills to manage remote teams. We asked managers:
In your own definition, what does it mean to be leader and manager at GitLab? My job as a manager is to…
Here's what they had to say:
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
GitLab is one of the world's largest all-remote companies. We are 100% remote, with no company-owned offices anywhere on the planet. We have over 1,500 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 our expertise in the field of remote work.
We believe 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 this page.
Return to the main all-remote page.