Review: What I learned from Coursera’s ‘How to Manage a Remote Team’ course

By Kathleen Davis

February 18, 2021

This time last year, the idea that most of us with office jobs would be working from home looked like a slow inevitability, perhaps 20 years down the road. In fact in early 2020, before COVID-19, only about 3% of the U.S. labor force worked remotely. But since restrictions were put in place last spring, around 42% of the U.S. works from home full time. And sure, some of those people are champing at the bit to return to their commutes and sad desk salads. But most aren’t. According to a recent study by FlexJobs, 65% of newly remote workers don’t want to go back to the office.

Companies that have long thought remote workers would be less productive outside of the office or that their work could only be done in person have, 11 months in, found that things didn’t fall apart. They are also realizing that they can save a ton of money without physical offices (often in expensive cities such as New York and San Francisco).

So it seems the future is now. But crisis-induced working from home is vastly different from intentional remote work. So if last year made you rethink in-office work, it’s probably a good time to get serious about how to do this long-term.

Since I’m one of the (about 3.5 million) people who moved out of New York this year, and I also manage journalists located around the country, I was interested to learn how to manage a remote team from GitLab, a company with 1,300 employees spread across 67 countries. While Fast Company along with thousands of other companies scrambled to take their work virtual last year, GitLab has put a lot of thought into how to build and run an all-remote company.

Leaders from across the company have turned all that expertise into a 5-week course (which is self-paced, so you can finish as quickly or slowly as you’d like), How to Manage a Remote Team, available on Coursera.  The videos, short bullet-pointed readings, and quizzes are easy to dip into and out of (most videos are around five minutes long, so I’d watch them in the dead space between Zoom calls). There are also discussion forums where students can share thoughts and get insights from others taking the course, which could be useful for those in decision-making positions looking to make remote work permanent at their companies.

That’s not me, so while some of the recommendations—such as how to operate in other countries or make a decision about which model of remote work is best for your company—weren’t applicable to me, there is still a lot that’s useful regardless of whether you’re a CEO, a midlevel manager, or an employee that wants to make a case for why remote work could be the best thing for your role.

Even if your company (like ours) isn’t planning to go fully remote long-term, there are still helpful takeaways, especially around meetings. My days felt filled with meetings when we worked in the office, but like most people, the number of meetings on my calendar has ballooned since we’ve been working remotely. GitLab has figured out how to relieve some Zoom fatigue. The course advises scheduling so-called “speedy meetings” (20 or 50 minutes instead of a full half-hour or hour) to give people time to recharge in between tasks. Their solution to “this meeting could have been an email” is to essentially make all meetings into an email by giving every meeting a written agenda, and taking notes in the agenda doc during the meeting. Further, most meetings are recorded, so invitees can watch them on a flexible schedule. GitLab’s instructors also outline helpful advice on how to map career paths for remote employees and guard against burnout.

The course is $49 to earn a certificate upon completion. You can also audit any Coursera class for free, though the audit doesn’t give you full access to discussions, materials, or resources in the course.

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Correction: A previous version of this article misstated the price of the course.