My remote employees are starting to feel a little TOO remote

Our advice columnist on how to keep your distributed team close

As the space between work and not-work becomes ever more blurred, questions about how to do this thing we plug away at for 30 or 40 or 70 hours a week become all the more expansive. In Work Flow, we delve into the novel dilemmas created by the new ways we work, as well as timeless questions about ethics, gender assumptions, and toxic work situations (and how to escape them). How we work is an important component of how we live—and we’re here to help you do better at both.

Something messing with your flow? Unload your work problems here, and you’ll not only feel heard but you’ll also get unbiased, real-world advice. (That’s something your work sibling/spouse just can’t offer.) Tell us everything:

I manage a distributed team—everyone works from home in various locales, though we do get together at least once a year for a company-wide meeting. It’s challenging to juggle different time zones and schedules, but we make it work with weekly team meetings over video conference as well as one-on-one video meetings. (We also email throughout the day, and do phone calls as needed.) 

While most of my team members seem to be responsible work-from-homers, one of my newer employees is regularly unavailable at various points throughout the day—hours can go by before I get a response to a pressing question. In our one-on-ones, he acts like everything is fine—which I suppose it is, since he gets me his hard deliverables on time. I haven’t brought up the issue for fear of seeming like a micromanager. 

Am I being a micromanager by taking issue with his periods of unavailability, or is he doing something legitimately wrong? How can I, in general, have better visibility and oversight into what my remote team is doing? 

Ah, these are the struggles of our time! According to a Global Workplace Analytics survey, 4.7 million employees (3.4 percent of the U.S. workforce) work remotely at least half the time, and 80 percent to 90 percent of the U.S. workforce says they would like to do so at least part-time. Working remotely is often linked with greater worker happiness and efficiency, and it also frequently helps both workers and companies save money, and results in other nice things like reduced greenhouse gases, since it cuts down on commutes. We’re likely to keep moving in the direction of remote teams, as FlexJob’s second annual Future Workforce Report found that 38 percent of full-time, permanent employees will likely work remotely in some capacity within the next 10 years.

So, it’s a perfect time to ask these questions, really. And your desire to not be a micromanager is laudable… but you’re definitely going to have to start managing a bit more. The good news is: Doing so is going to be helpful for everyone on your team, including you.

Step 1: Set expectations

Your first order of business—if you haven’t done this already—is for you to lay out your expectations for your team. What expectations have been set already? If the answer is “none,” then it’s time to set them. Answer the following questions about how you want everyone to work together, taking “fear of micromanaging” off the table for a second.

  • When do you want everyone actively online? When do you just want them to be reachable? Within reason, of course. You can’t suddenly demand everyone is online during New York hours if someone is in Australia (especially if they took the job without this expectation previously being set). But there are likely working hours that will link up somehow across geographies. How do you want your team to use that time?
  • What are your expectations for breaks during the day—lunch and otherwise? How do you want break time made visible to you and the rest of the team? One easy option here is to create a shared Google calendar, and ask people to enter in scheduled vacations and away time (focus on major breaks or appointments) so you can keep apprised on where everyone is when you can’t find them. Avoid going overboard and asking for people to log each and every break—that starts to indeed feel micromanage-y, and is going to take more time from your employees than its worth. It may be easier to use your Slack channel for those midday step-away moments, which vary regularly. People can simply announce, “Heading out for lunch, be back shortly” instead of entering it into a calendar with a discrete time allotment each day.
  • What do you want to use as the priority line of communication for urgent matters—Slack, email, text? How will you let them know (and how do you want them to let you know) when things are urgent? 
  • What is the expected response time for urgent matters? For everything else?

Write this all up, and then link it back to your team goals. How will these practices help you accomplish what needs to get done each day, week, quarter, etc.?  

Step 2: Share expectations with your team

It’s on you to set up how you want your team to work in the first place, so do that. Your employees don’t know what the rules are until you tell them, and look, we’re humans and we like structure. So, in your next team meeting, present your expectations and explain the rationale behind them: “Hey, some of us are new here, some of us have been working here for ages, but I’ve been thinking about some ways to be even more efficient and transparent with our workflow. We’re going to have some standardized working hours during which we’re all online. Unless you’ve noted that you’ll be away for something during that time period via the Google calendar or Slack channel, I expect you to return any pressing emails within an hour’s time, or, if that’s not possible, to let me know that you’ve received my note and that it’s going to take a bit more time to finish…” Being clear about what you want, need, and expect is going to move things in the right direction. 

After you’ve said your piece, ask your team for their thoughts, suggestions, and comments about how things have been working and how they might get better. Presumably, you’ve hired them because they’re smart people and you want to work with them. What do they have to say about how things are working, and about how things might work better? 

Step 3: Follow up one-on-one

After your team meeting, make sure to do a one-on-one with each employee, including the one with the absence issue. Lead the conversation asking for feedback about what was presented. Will those ground rules work for him? Does he need more guidance, or does he have any concerns? Be direct with your concerns as well: “I’ve noticed you’re sometimes unavailable when I need you, and sometimes you take a really long time to respond to issues that are pressing. How is the remote work situation working for you? Is there anything we can do to improve? What do you need from me to help you be most efficient?” This is how you get on the same page. You don’t need to ask him why he’s not available—let him volunteer the information if he wants to. If he doesn’t, then just watch for him to change his behavior in accordance with the expectations you set. 

Step 4: Institute more regular check-ins

Even though meetings can be taxing on schedules, when everyone is remote, additional touchpoints can be helpful. “Stand-up meetings”—quick status checks led by a team or project leader—are a great way to get digital face time with your team, and they can be held virtually. You can do them daily via video conference if you feel it’s necessary. Or, a lighter-weight option is to do one stand-up via video conference per week, and then daily stand-ups on Slack in your team channel. 

Additionally, make sure you’re using all the communication tools in your bag to communicate regularly. Use video-conferencing when you need to have important or sensitive conversations and need to see faces. And if Slack or emails are getting lost, pick up the phone when you need a quick answer to something. 

Step 5: Maximize in-person time

Make sure to take advantage of that one office-wide meeting—maximize the time your team spends together when everyone gathers for it. Consider asking for the budget to have an additional team gathering or two. In-person team gatherings have been shown to help remote workers feel more connected to their community and purpose and therefore to become more productive. If you talk to your own manager about the struggles you’ve been facing and make a solid business case for more in-person time, you might be able to secure approval for it.

There are plenty of benefits to not always sharing an office, but regular communication (and active management) needs to become a focus to get it right. Keep evolving the program to suit each team member, and you. That’s not micromanaging—it’s just good business for everyone involved.

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