Remote and distributed team questions answered

A button with Q & A letters - Your telework questions answeredWhen I talk with business owners and managers, one of the most common questions they have about virtual teams is: “How can I know my staff are working when they say they are working?” Thankfully, that problem is easily solved, but not by doing the same things we’ve always done in the way we’ve always done them.


I have had the opportunity of working with some of Australia’s leading proponents of flexible work. These firms have dialled up some management behaviours and dialled down others.

Effective Monitoring, not Micromanagement

There are established ways of knowing when our staff are working effectively. As managers, our own job performance usually depends on the performance of our staff – what could be more important than knowing they are doing their job?


Whether we check in with stakeholders, make a quick call to discuss progress, review work before it goes up the line or listen to the grassroots discussion among our teams, there are a variety of ways to monitor the work being done on our patch.


The stellar examples of successful flexible and remote work dial up these behaviours. Monitoring increases – but not in a micromanaging, breathing-down-your-neck kind of way.


This is an important distinction: it is where a lot of new players make mistakes. Micromanagement is the opposite of enabling, supporting, leading and inspiring our teams to better performance.


As an aside, the increase in flexible and remote work is a dominant trend in today’s workplace. For example, the International Data Corporation recently predicted that mobile worker numbers would reach 1.3 billion globally by 2015. In Australia’s knowledge-dependent economy, the increase will be particularly felt.


So if micromanagement is not the answer, what is the best approach? It is to lead rather than micromanage.


What this means is dialling up the communication around what we agree, as a manager and team member, are the expectations of the team member’s role. It also means dialling up the openness and transparency around these expectations. The work is done more at the front end, to establish the basis of a discussion about what is and is not being achieved. I will talk more in an upcoming webinar with Vanguard Visions about how to achieve openness and transparency around work expectations.

Less Monitoring ‘Attendance’

What about the habits we need to dial down? They are a lot to do with changing our expectations. In a virtual office, unless your team members work shifts, it is possible that they will not be at their desk at 9am.


We have been trained, through force of habit, to factor in attendance as an indication of someone’s commitment to their job. Virtual managers make an assessment of whether ‘presence’ is a reasonable expectation: is attendance necessary for the person to do their job? In some cases presence is necessary: when there is a lot of collaborative teamwork; when there are clients to serve or when there are meetings to have. However, when the work is more about results, it is usually only important to meet expectations such as “be at your desk at 9am” in particular circumstances.


You may have noticed that this habit of looking at attendance is also about moving away from micromanagement towards leadership. The most productive examples of flexible and remote work have worked out that micromanagement is the death of performance, while leadership enables, empowers and supports workers to achieve their best.

Focus on Outputs Rather Than Time Spent

Another major change is moving from an inputs focus to an outputs or outcomes focus: from ‘time spent in the office’ to ‘results delivered’. Sometimes these outcomes include collaboration, development of knowledge work and other subjective outcomes. There is always a way to describe these outcomes so that they are open and transparent.


If you have further concerns about how to manage your virtual team, your responsibilities as an employer, or would like more detail about how you can know for sure that your staff are doing their agreed work, feel free to get in touch.


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