Making the most of your first three months as a remote manager

The early days at a new job are a critical time for employees—it’s generally during the first six months that new hires make the decision about whether they’ll stick around long-term. This is why in recent years companies have become much more intentional about the onboarding process (see this interview with Suneet Bhatt, General Manager at CrazyEgg for more on this topic).

And while the pressure is high to create a seamless onboarding experience for all new employees, it’s especially important to think about how to prepare new managers to succeed in their roles. We love how Julie Zhuo tackled this topic in her recent post, Making the Most of Your First Three Months as a Manager.

In her article, Zhuo talks about the four routes of how people become managers. Under her framework, I would be categorized as a “new boss” since I was hired to lead and develop an existing function and team. Although I’m based in San Francisco, I have team members distributed across three other locations around the globe. As a result, I spent a lot of time in my first three months thinking about the intricacies of distributed teams: how can remote managers approach their first few months on the job to maximize communication, collaboration, and overall success? Here are some of my observations and learnings.

Assessing your new environment in the first 90 days

It’s important to have a plan for your first 90 days in any new job. As a manager, it’s even more critical to develop a deep understanding of your new environment in order to be successful. But remote managers may have to rely on a different toolkit than if everyone were co-located.

I like to assess a new environment through a four-quadrant analysis of the company, the culture, the product, and the team. In the first quadrant sits the company. You want to understand your business model, the numbers, key stakeholders, business strategy, sales strategy, organizational challenges, mission, vision, and north star metrics. The goal of this quadrant is to develop strong business acumen through the broad context of your organization.

In the second quadrant, you have the culture. This is an area Zhuo emphasizes is something to watch out for the “new boss” in particular: understanding and adapting to the norms of your new environment. It’s key to understand the company’s vision and mission, decision-making process, leadership styles, explicit and implicit cultural values, attitudes, beliefs, shared language, and communication styles. This quadrant should help develop “organizational EQ” for you to be more effective in your role.

In the third quadrant sits the product. Deeply knowing your product is a huge advantage in any role in a technology company. You’ll be able to better understand your customers (their pain points, frustrations, and “aha moments”), serve as a subject matter expert, and gain better context for product strategy decisions. For me, learning about the product included exploring and using the product, demos from team members, watching video tutorials, reading product reviews, gathering customer feedback, and more.

The last quadrant includes your team. This quadrant clarifies the role of your team within the larger context of the business. What are your team’s goals? What are the gaps to take the team to the next level? What are the personalities on your team? What are your team members’ hopes and dreams? Here, you’ll learn how to best leverage your team’s strengths, balance out weaknesses, and help your team grow. For “new bosses,” this is an especially important stage to focus on as you may be inheriting team members or perceptions of your team.

Learning about these topics in a co-located environment might mean taking advantage of in-person 1:1s, casual “hallway” conversations, as well as everyday in-person collaboration with colleagues and stakeholders across the organization. In a distributed environment, you may have to incorporate a different set of tools—including scheduled meetings, “virtual coffees,” and collaboration via video conferencing or platforms like Miro.

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Key learnings from becoming a manager of a distributed team

1. Try to work as if you’re in the same room, even when you’re not

We are truly distributed here at Miro. My team is spread across 3 very different time zones around the world. If you’re working in this kind of environment with distributed stakeholders and a distributed team, recognize that you’ll need to rely on a mixture of in-person interactions and technology to be effective. While there are situations where it helps to be able to get to know someone face-to-face, technology – especially platforms like Miro and video conferencing – can help us do a lot of real-time collaboration virtually.

The principle we follow is to try to create opportunities to work as if we’re in the same room, even when we’re not. This means things like setting aside time to conduct quarterly retrospectives together virtually, brainstorm, or conduct real-time workshops where everyone might hop onto a Zoom call and Miro board. We also actively try to create more opportunities for unstructured collaboration to mirror the in-person experience of “bouncing ideas off someone.”

2. Communicate, communicate, communicate

Be explicit about connecting the dots for your team. When your team is colocated, there may be frequent opportunities to learn about company strategy, your vision for the team, shifting priorities, etc. organically—by overhearing conversations, casual chats with team members and stakeholders, or even ad-hoc discussions at the lunch table.

Here at Miro, it’s critical that I share the same kind of knowledge and insight with my team. They may not have had access to the same conversations, and it’s easy for things to slip through the cracks across offices and time zones. My team members are often answering questions on my behalf, and it can be a frustrating experience if they don’t know the answers.

I certainly made mistakes in figuring out the right balance of what and how much to communicate in my first few months, so now I try to provide more avenues for my team to ask questions, probe to ensure we’ve reached a shared understanding, and co-create whenever possible.

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Rituals that help tie a new remote team together

One-on-ones

There’s a lot of content out there about the importance of regular 1:1s with your team. For all types of new managers (apprentices, pioneers, new bosses, or successors), establishing a consistent cadence and approach to 1:1s helps your team build trust with you, surface challenges, and share two-way feedback to create stronger working relationships. For distributed teams, the 1:1 becomes invaluable time to catch up on important context for projects and align on what’s going on across different spheres of the company.

1:1s with my team usually span anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes depending on the team member and the number of topics to cover. I try not to bookend 1:1s to allow enough time for us to cover everything—if we aren’t able to, we schedule more time or align on next steps to ensure there are no bottlenecks.

We use a basic agenda that is primarily driven by the team member. I believe in the 1:1 as the team member’s time, which is why it’s critical the team member has the autonomy to shape the conversation. Because we don’t have opportunities for quick in-person “catch-ups,” we typically start by working through some urgent tactical challenges, then address other topics like sharing knowledge on what’s going on across the company, career development, and two-way feedback. I keep a running list of coaching topics on each person’s one-on-one agenda so we can make sure to circle back periodically.

Team meetings

We also have regular team meetings, which we use as an opportunity to share knowledge across the team, discuss how people are feeling, share insights and blockers, and create more human connection.

Our team meetings have a standing agenda, though we’re constantly refining the topics to try to optimize their usefulness. There’s time dedicated to high-level updates on things we’re hearing across the organization, kicking off new projects, sharing insights, and removing blockers. We always end on team kudos as a way to celebrate our team members.

For distributed organizations, I’ve found it helpful to have different levels of team meetings to keep everyone aligned:

  • Team – our alternating biweekly team meetings
  • Department – our alternating biweekly marketing all-hands meetings
  • Organization – our monthly company all-hands meetings

If you don’t have one or more of these kinds of meetings currently, your team could be missing out on opportunities to broaden their business context. Consider how you might be able to share relevant knowledge to help your team members make better decisions.

Cross-team “kitchen meetings”

A good friend, former colleague, and fellow manager, Dalmar Hussein from Instapage, introduced me to this concept: similar to a weekly critique meeting that design teams might host, a weekly “dinner table” (or “kitchen meeting” as we call it) provides a distributed team with a regular opportunity to work together organically.

Our weekly kitchen meetings are timeboxed and usually span between 30-60 minutes. The agenda is open for anyone to add to as long as they fill out all the items below. During this time, we’ve brainstormed project ideas, workshopped team processes, reviewed draft deliverables, and more. This time is meant to be spent on actual “teamwork.”

The structure is simple:

  • Topic
  • Owner
  • Amount of time needed

When you’re twelve hours apart from the rest of your team (our reality!), it can be hard to feel justified taking up someone’s morning or evening to brainstorm or share an unfinished draft of a deliverable. But this kind of organic collaboration is so critical to making any team feel like a real team. Gathering early feedback, working through issues together, and learning from each other is invaluable. Plus, we’ve found that this process creates better end results.

Becoming a remote manager of a distributed team can seem like a daunting task, but it’s important to realize that by leveraging the right tools, communicating thoughtfully with your team, and creating a structured approach for important team rituals, you can make the most of your first three months and conquer the “new job jitters.”

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