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Why remote teams need an accountability system – a story

When working with remote teams, it is easy to fall into a micromanagement role, constantly inquiring about every task to make sure it gets accomplished. This actually leads to the opposite of your goal; employees take less responsibility and accountability to reach the goals and tasks. How does this happen?

I have done a lot of management consulting for many different companies over the years. In one instance I was at a company’s multi-day corporate sales meeting. During that meeting, every time they gave a 10 minute break, at the 10 minute mark, the Vice President would tell all of the managers to go out into the building and round up their sales teams, so they would come back to the room and start the meeting. This was ineffective for several reasons:

  • The managers couldn’t spend their own break doing anything productive because they had to be ready to go gather their employees
  • The managers resented their employees because their employees couldn’t be accountable for their own time and they had to “babysit” them
  • The employees never looked at their watch to see when the 10 minute break was up for them to return. Why should they when their manager would come get them.
  • However, the employees resented the fact that their manager had to come tell them to return – “What were they, children?”

During the next break, I pulled the VP and managers aside and told them we were going to change strategy. After the 10 minutes was up, we were going to close the doors and start the meeting as planned, rather than rounding people up. If the sales people were not back, too bad.

After 10 minutes, only the VP and managers were back in the room. They closed the door and started the meeting. After another 10 minutes or so, the sales people started looking at their watches and wondering what was taking their managers so long to come get them. “Maybe they should go back to the meeting room to see what was going on.”

At the 20 minute mark, sales people started to return to the meeting room, realizing they were late and interrupting the meeting already in progress by walking in the room.

However, something very different happened after the next break – 95% of all sales people came back on time, after 10 minutes, without prompting from their managers.

As soon as they were held accountable by the potential embarrassment of being late or interrupting a meeting, they took responsibility to look at their own watches and meet the deadline.

You need to have some sort of accountability system in place for your remote teams, or else you ultimately have to be that system, which leads to micro-management and resentment from your team. The accountability system can be as simple as a weekly summary of progress they submit to you, or a dashboard where they enter their weekly goal obtainments. But in either case, it has to be driven by them and done frequently. Taking this approach builds the team’s responsibility for their actions, and frees up your time to focus on more important management tasks, ultimately keeping your team running productively.

The Importance of Trust in Remote Employees

Trust is a one of the most critical factors when managing employees. How do we trust that they are spending their time productively? Focusing on the appropriate things? Completing work and tasks in the correct manner? To build your trust in them, you need to extend trust to them.

Building trustOften with remote teams, management fears that employees are not working as needed, when they are working remotely. This can lead to a micromanagement style by trying to manage every little task they are completing. However, this creates the opposite effect that management desires. It drives employees to take less responsibility for their tasks and work, which in turn creates more micro-management. In turn, management doesn’t trust the employee and the employee doesn’t trust management.

A better approach is to trust the employee to do the job, and not manage each and every task. Instead, manage to the end result or goal. To help the employee stay on track, set clear expectations as well as a method for them to report their progress. Provide a process and schedule for them to report through, so that they have a proactive method for communicating, rather than you having to continually initiate it. It could be a weekly spreadsheet that is emailed every Friday morning, or a list that is updated in a SharePoint site, with their latest accomplishments. By putting this into their hands, rather than a one off follow up driven by you, it extends trust and responsibility to them.

If you put the trust in them to manage their own tasks, they are more apt to live up to it, and it will entail less micromanagement on your part. When you extent trust to them, it will also increase their trust in you as their manager, and in your decisions, processes, and leadership. It is a reciprocal effect that will generate that much more productivity and quality work.

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