Nearly 15 years ago I pitched an idea to my boss: I would work remotely two days a week. My three-hour daily commute was dragging me down physically, mentally and creatively.
Luckily my boss was onboard. And even though we were just a small team of three, we (really meaning me) had to figure out how to keep our team’s communication and collaboration flowing while still delivering projects on time — without the benefit of tools like Slack, Basecamp and Google Docs. There were a few bumps along the way, but we made it work.
Flash forward to today. Many content teams reach far and wide across multiple time zones. Cobbling together teams of remote employees, freelancers and agencies has become the norm.
With to-dos to manage, timelines to schedule and team members to coordinate, how does the modern manager keep creative work flowing and team members happy, even when they don’t sit shoulder-to-shoulder?
I asked seven managing editors and marketing leaders to share what they’ve learned about managing a remote content team.
Communicate Clear Expectations
Whether it’s a small team or a large one, success starts with clear expectations. Ross Simmonds, a digital marketing strategist at the content agency Foundation Marketing, says one of the most important parts of managing and inspiring a content team is to give them freedom while embracing structure. “You have to give your team the autonomy to work when and where they will be most productive while embracing a process that ensures deadlines are met and quality is maintained,” he says.
Kim Courvoisier, director of content marketing at the customer engagement platform Thanx, manages a remote freelance squad spread around the globe. In her onboarding deck, Kim includes writing examples to illustrate her expectations for content quality. She works closely with new team members on the first few assignments so both can learn each other’s styles and understand the edits so those can be folded into the process going forward. “There is a high bar to overcome for content to stand out. My team understands my expectations and shares the same passion for producing quality content,” Kim says.
Start off Strong
As team lead for content and email marketing at RelationEdge Digital Agency, Heather Ferguson faces the tricky balance of managing both in-house and remote writers. Heather takes new team members through a robust onboarding process that includes a best-practices document with details on topics such as how to format writing and cite sources, and with client-specific style guides. “We use Trello, so I’ll also take them through a step-by-step of our project boards, how they receive assignments and even how to submit invoices.”
Ross Simmonds uses a similar onboarding process, briefing every new team member on tone, formatting, and how to craft a lede.
Kim Courvoisier says her onboarding process is key for setting up her remote team for success. “My freelancers write for multiple companies, so our onboarding includes style guides, voice, tone and more — everything they need to easily drop in and write an assignment.”
The Right Tools Make a Big Difference
All of the managers I talked to swear by certain tools to religiously manage every process step and to-do list. As Laleh Hassibi, vice president of marketing at the healthcare software company Datica, says, “my 100 percent remote marketing team is more effective because of strong organization.”
While I love Basecamp, the group’s favorite tools include:
- Google Docs: The gold-standard for writing, editing, commenting and version control.
- Project management tools like Asana, Trello, CoSchedule and Airtable.
- Slack for real-time communication, brainstorming and collaboration.
- Zoom for internal meetings/videoconferencing.
Heather Ferguson says assignments aren’t made until a detailed Trello project template is complete. “Every content creator has everything they need to write: our goals, background about our expectations, resources we may have, the target buyer persona, and even voice and tone.”
Laleh sings the praises of SEMrush for keyword research and tracking, as well as the SEMRush SEO Content Template to determine articles to write based on both target keywords and competitors for those keywords. “I give writers a Google Doc with the SEO Writing Assistant add-on enabled, which provides keywords to use, required article length and more,” she says.
As director of marketing for the content agency Animalz, Devin Bramhall and her team take their project management tools a step further with automations in Airtable. “When it’s time to review an article outline, I’ll receive an automatic Slack notification,” Devin says. “Or when the final draft is complete, a triggered email notifies the customer it’s time to review.” She says the tools and automation reduce admin work for content managers so they can focus on making high-quality content.
Set Regular Synch-Ups
Several managers emphasized the importance of regular conference calls or video chats to keep a remote team connected, even more so than with in-person teams.
“We start off each week with a marketing synch call to talk through that week’s projects,” Laleh Hassibi says. Once a month, she says, she uses the team call to think holistically about the next campaign. “We’ll brainstorm and add all of our ideas to our Asana ideas board. After the call we go back to figure out what can realistically be done and add it to our overall project calendar.”
Devin Bramhall embraces weekly meetings too but keeps things loose. “Without a formal agenda, my team can bring up challenges or questions, or use the time to brainstorm ideas with their fellow team members on other ideas or tactics that have worked,” she says.
Let Team Members’ Passions Shine
Danalynne Menegus, editor of Corporate Event News, says she has found it helpful to understand what types of content individual team members are most interested in creating. “Some people like writing articles and blog posts, while others lean toward infographics, e-books or white papers. And some are naturally more passionate about certain topics than others.”
By recognizing and supporting team members’ passions, they’ll want to work — and continue working — with you. “When you enjoy what you’re writing about, you stay engaged in the work,” she says — which is especially important in managing a remote content team.
It can be hard to maintain a creative spark when a team isn’t physically in the same room together. But Ross Simmonds says that while an in-person team might brainstorm around a whiteboard in a conference room, a remote team can brainstorm from virtually anywhere. “Recognize that not everyone finds their creative juices in the same place,” he says. “Remote work offers people the chance to find their creative place and create great content in the process.”
Erin Walker, director of content and communications at legal tech company Clio, says she takes time with her team to do creative exercises together. “One of my team members gives us copywriting exercises and we do them as a group. It's a great way to re-energize our creative juices, but we also use it to challenge each other in a meaningful way.”
As Devin Bramhall says, “when you’re working on the same thing day in and day out, it’s easy to get bored and go with what we know works.” But because “our processes create so much efficiency, we can indulge in creative moments.” Whether that’s going to conferences and listening to speakers or meeting with customers, she says, these moments of creativity make a big difference in keeping the team inspired.
Keep an Eye Out for Potential Problems
When you’re managing a remote team, it can be harder to immediately spot problems that are brewing. But Erin Walker says there are a few simple ways to “put a little more human” into your team interactions when people are working remotely. “When I’m emailing a team member or pick up the phone to chat with them, I try to make sure that conversation includes a little bit of ‘hey, how's your day going?’ or ‘what projects are you excited about?’ ”
Devin Bramhall says reading between the lines helps her understand what’s going on with her team. “I’ll troll Slack to suss out any issues before they become a real problem,” she says. “If someone is feeling lonely or something else is amiss, they might not directly verbalize it.”
She says that problems become easier to spot when an issue shows up in a team member’s work product, like multiple missed deadlines. “There’s no way to create a formula, so you have to proactively detect and deal with any issues before they boil to the surface,” Devin says.
Be Flexible and Adaptable
Despite all the processes and procedures you put in place, remember that you and your team may need to make adjustments. As Heather Ferguson says, “it’s easy to say this is what we’ve always done and it’s always worked, but sometimes those practices need to change.”
Devin Bramhall echoes the idea of being flexible. “When you start managing a remote team, you make decisions about process and tools, and commit to executing those ideas.” But as you start evaluating what’s working, she says “you’ll figure out areas that need improvement, so stay open to making changes.”
Don’t Forget About the Little Things
Heather Ferguson says one of the things she’s learned from managing a remote team is to surprise them throughout the year. “I’ll send a physical holiday card to my entire remote team, signed by everyone in the office. It’s such a treat to get something in the mail these days, and is a tangible way to show they’re part of a larger team.”
Kim Courvoisier says she shows her gratitude by paying well and on time, and by sending small gifts when appropriate. “I couldn’t do what I do without my remote team. They’re unsung heroes because they’re deep in the trenches of what we do but never get a byline or recognition, so I make sure they know how much I appreciate them with little gestures.”
Thanks Ross, Kim, Heather, Laleh, Devin, Danalynne and Erin for sharing all your lessons learned!
Sign up for the newsletter to get all the latest updates from Managing Editor.