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Managing Performance with a Remote Team

By Jenny Douras

Employees that work remotely can more easily veer off on the wrong path.  They usually do not do this intentionally.  Because they are isolated from the company they can misperceive what is important, and focus on the wrong thing.  No one wants to do a bad job. Usually employees fail because expectations are not clear.  And, because remote employees are disconnected from the company, they can more easily go in the wrong direction.  

So how can we ensure remote employees stay on track with what is important to the team and the company?  Managers need to lay a clear foundation, then continuously reinforce it through communication and feedback.  

Create a team Vision.  Can you recite your company’s vision statement?  Don’t worry if you can’t: 99% of people surveyed cannot.  Why?  Companies often lock their executives in a room for a day with an expensive marketing company to come up with a company vision, presented in fancy marketing-speak.  Then they print a few posters of the vision to hang on a wall, and walk away.  The vision is not reinforced in day-to-day work.  When creating a vision for your team, come up with a simple sentence or two of what the team’s purpose is.  It doesn’t need to be fancy marketing speech, just a straight forward statement of their purpose in the company – what they should always ultimately be striving for.  Then after you come up with the vision, and roll it out to your team, find ways to constantly reinforce it in team communications.

Create Expectations that support your vision.  The vision is the bright shiny object you want them to strive for.  But visions can leave a lot to interpretation.  Breakdown the vision into expectations that your employees can work toward to help them reach that vision.  If part of your vision is for your team to “think strategically,” define what that means in the expectations.  Do you want them to look for creative solutions to problems?  Do you want them to create new opportunities and find new ways to work?  This is where you want to define those objectives.

Create weekly measurable Goals.   Create a tracking sheet that employees submit to you each week to report their goal obtainment.  These should be ongoing, weekly goals that don’t change for at least 90 days, but that are measured weekly.  This breaks down those expectations into something that is trackable to help employees clearly see what they should be accomplishing.  Did you want them to look for creative solutions to problems?  Then one of your weekly goals might be for them to report on one creative solution they came up with each week.  The key to making goal attainment successful is to have employees deliver this to you each week.  You want them to report on it to you.  If, instead, you use a system in which you pull their numbers or information, and let them know how they did, you are ultimately the reporting system, and they will be less likely to take responsibility to reach the goals (without constant reminders from you).  Instead, make sure the process requires each individual team member to report their goal obtainments to you each week.

Throw out the old Performance Reviews with rating systems.  Many companies still use annual performance reviews that require a manger to rate employees in specific categories, such as communication, collaboration, leadership, etc., with a rating scale, such as, Excellent, Good, Needs Improvement, etc.  These vague statements are not effective in clearly communicating to your employees how effectively they are performing.  Have you ever had a class in school where the A was an easy A, but in another class, with a different teacher, you were excited to just get that B?  Category-rating performance reviews are the equivalent:  They are subjective.  One person’s “Excellent” might be another’s “Good.” As well, the once-a-year timeframe leaves a lot of feedback gaps throughout the year.

Instead, do quarterly performance planning sessions.  These are conversations you have with your employee, in which you set goals for the next 90 days, and review progress on the past 90 days.  These are not a rating system; instead goals and accomplishments are documented, primarily by the employee before the discussion, with a final version created, with additional edits, after meeting with their manager.  These are a collaborative and candid discussion between manager and employee that establishes much clearer communication on how well the employee is meeting expectations.

By creating a clear Vision, supporting it with Expectations and weekly Goal tracking, and then providing quarterly collaborative Performance Planning sessions, your remote team will stay on track.  There will be little room for doubt on what the important focus areas are, and employees will be more successful.  




Getting Dispersed Teams Communicating

When teams work remotely, and are dispersed across multiple locations, team members can become isolated and cut off from their team coworkers.   This can stunt communication, since it is not generated as a natural byproduct of working in the same location together every day.   So how do you ensure you keep them communicating as much as they would when in the office?  You have to get them used to using different communication channels in place of traditional face-to-face time.  It often can take some forced effort until you get them in the habit.

  • During team phone calls, allow time at the beginning or end to allow small talk. Initiate this small talk by throwing out questions to get everyone participating.
  • Pair up team members on small projects or tasks that require them to communicate via phone. Have them come up with ways to combat competitor products, or have them find a solution to an issue and present to the team.
  • Have senior team members mentor new members through scheduled weekly conversations.
  • Have team members post items on the company Intranet, including blogs, wiki’s, and discussion boards, to share ideas and accomplishments.
  • Encourage employees to use IM for quick drop-in type questions
  • Have employees use web cameras, whenever possible during conference calls, so team members can have some visual interaction

There are many tools you can provide for your team to use to communicate when not in the same office.  However, you will most likely have to encourage their use until they are communicating as frequently as being in the same location.  It is also good to ensure they do not only rely on the electronic tools such as email, IM, and intranet, and that they are including just as much phone communication as other types.




Socratic Coaching for Remote Employees

When coaching a team of remote employees, the most effective method to use is Socratic coaching. It is critical that remote employees are able to make decisions autonomously when they do not have quick access to their manager or another company resource. But that means that they need to be taught the best way to make those decisions, and reliably be able to recall what they have been taught. When we coach by telling, there is a risk of less retention of the message that was delivered during that coaching. If people come up with the ideas and solutions themselves, they will be more apt to remember them in future, as well as motivated to use them.

Socratic coaching is the method that can deliver these results. Socrates was known for winning arguments and changing people’s thoughts through asking questions. This is what the Socratic coaching method is based on. It involves asking questions rather than giving answers when coaching. It is designed to coach through self-discovery by asking open-ended questions, to help people find information, and teach a thinking process, to enable them to make better decisions in the future.

Some examples of Socratic coaching questions include:

  • How will you know if you’re successful?
  • How will you work with other team members on this?
  • What other alternatives have you considered?
  • What went well in this project? What would you have liked to change?
  • What things didn’t go as well as we had anticipated? How might we avoid similar problems in the future?
  • How do you think this impacted the rest of the team?

Use the questions to guide the employee to the solution or idea you would like them to reach. You can ask questions that get them to see the bigger picture and how their actions may be affecting others. You can also use questions that dig deeper into their surface comments to really get to the root of the issue. Employees are very receptive to this method of coaching. Often times, if done correctly, the employees do not even know they are being coached. It is more like a collaborative knowledge-sharing atmosphere, where they get to share their ideas and thoughts, which they are then willing to embrace with more positive results.




Remote Workers Statistics – what does research say?

How many people work remotely? A 2015 Gallup survey found that currently 37% of employees in the US have worked remotely from their home. For those that do telecommutes, they average 6.4 days per month.   However, about 15% work from home all of the time. As well, 39% of companies currently allow some employees to work remotely.

Who works remotely? A Global Workplace Analytics’ 2011 “State of Telework in the U.S.” report found that the average remote worker is 49 years old. As well, Gallup found that 55% of them were college graduates. Technology has allowed for more people to telecommute. However, there are many jobs that don’t utilize computers as their main focus, which could limit the ability for those employees to work remotely.

What is the impact to productivity? Often there is a common misconception that people who work remotely are not working as many hours, and are getting less done, than their in-office counterparts. There is often a fear that if you can’t see them, and they are not in the office, then they are not working. However, Gallup found that employees who spent at least some time telecommuting were more engaged in their jobs than those that never did, which translated to increased productivity, profitability and customer engagement. They also found that remote workers logged an average of 4 more hours per week than those who didn’t telecommute.

The number of companies who allow telecommuting are increasing, as are the number of employees and positions that take advantage of remote work. 70% of employees in a Gallup survey said they would like to telecommute. So it is clearly a trend that will continue to grow. Companies can recognize many benefits from allowing telecommuting, including more productive workers, and the ability to attract a better and larger pool of talent for new positions.




Motivating a Virtual Team

People do things for 2 key reasons – to avoid pain or receive pleasure. Or at least that is what we used to think. However many books (such as Help! I’m a Manger by Arnold Mol or Drive by Daniel H. Pink) have been written on the subject, and after numerous behavioral studies across many years, it turns out those reason may not really be motivation.

If a donkey is standing in a field and I want it to move to the other side of the field, I can get it to do so by hitting it on the rump with a stick, or dangling a carrot in front of it – the carrot or stick approach. However, that is different than if the donkey decides to go to the other side of the field because it wants to. The former is not really motivation, it is movement. It is getting the donkey to move from one point to the other. The latter is truly motivation.

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How SharePoint Can Help a Mobile Workforce

Mobile workforces need to replace face-to-face interaction and in-office time with other tools to stay connected and productive. When working in an office, there inherently tends to be more communication, idea generation sharing, collaboration, transparency of information, and community/team building. It is important to develop and encourage these areas with mobile workforces, so you don’t lose any of the in-office benefits. Using SharePoint can help.

SharePoint supplies an Intranet portal that allows mobile employees to contribute and share ideas and information. It is easy to learn, and allows users to be involved sharing ideas and content without requiring programming or IT.  This makes it an ideal tool that can be quickly implemented and gain adoption.

Some of the key areas where SharePoint can help mobile workforces:

  • Document Sharing & Management – Easy to use document libraries to share content. Can tag documents with any desired properties to make them easy to find in future. Employees can change how documents are displayed so each can have their own unique way of organizing the same documents.
  • Discussion Boards & Newsfeeds – Generate idea sharing opportunities using these tools. Make this the location for “virtual water cooler” chat. Employees can start items or join into existing ones, sharing ideas about any topic. Users can also “Follow” topics to receive immediate updates when others post.
  • Wiki’s & Blogs – Give employees a forum to share more in-depth topics, ideas, and articles, or use them as a place for them to get important information such as handbooks, FAQs, help desk, competitor information, how-tos, etc.
  • MySites – Social networking for work. Each employee has their own landing page where they can post their bio – a great way to enable company searching for subject matter experts on specific topics! Allows employees to connect to others in the company, follow and tag important topics and areas on the company site, and track their own tasks.
  • Dashboards – Create dashboards to display individual and team KPIs and metrics for weekly meeting discussions.
  • Team Collaboration on documents – Multiple employees can edit and work on the same document at the same time to view live edits as they happen. They can also utilize versioning, so that each iteration of a document is stored in archives, to access again in the future if needed.
  • Searching – Can search for any content on a site (documents, discussions, wikis, etc.) with lighting fast speeds. Search results provide quick filters to further define searches, as well as preview panes, to preview each item prior to opening.

These are only a small sampling of ways that SharePoint can help a dispersed team of employees across multiple locations. But by using this type of intranet site, employees can still collaborate and communicate just as frequently as they would in an office, by supplementing the tools they use to do so.

SharePoint can provide an environment for team building to keep your mobile team working together and with others in the company.




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.




How to be a Successful Remote Employee

I’m often asked what employees need to learn about working remotely. The majority of success for a remote team is dependent on management – how the team is managed and the systems in place to support them. However there is one key area that remote employees can focus on: their visibility.

Remote EmployeeWhen an employee is not physically in a company office every day, it can be easy to lose sight of what they are doing, and how they are contributing to the company, for those that do not work directly with that employee. As well, remote workers have a concern that they will be “out of sight and out of mind” when it comes to company opportunities, promotions, etc. . . Here are some key ways that remote employees can ensure their work and efforts are highly visible to the company:

  • Tele-presence – Your tele-presence is your phone presence. Since you can’t talk to people face to face when you are working remotely, the phone needs to do that for you. We are often hesitant to pick up the phone unless we feel we have significant information to share, but we will more likely walk down the hall to chat with someone in a more minor thing. When we work off-site, we often resort to email for the more minor items. This is ok to do occasionally, but if you drastically reduce your verbal communication when teleworking, you need a different strategy. Jot down and collect ideas and notes on items you want to discuss with people, on a daily or weekly basis.   Then, rather than sending emails, pick up the phone to cover the multiple topics. This gives the call more substance, will save you time, from writing multiple emails, and will ensure better quality communication.
  • Remote Access – You want to ensure you can access all network tools remotely when you are not in the office. Can you handle e-mails, access shared files, and any other company information that you would gather when in the office? If not, figure out how you can leverage technology to do so. If you find yourself saying “That can wait until I’m back in the office”, because you don’t have your needed files or access, then you are not leveraging your remote access effectively.
  • SharePoint – Use your corporation’s Intranet such as SharePoint, to keep you visible. Post responses to discussion boards, post pictures and documents, or share blog articles. Have a sub-site created to collaborate with your team on a project.
  • Team Engagement – are you a team player? Do you support team members when they are struggling? You involvement with your team will not only increase your visibility with your team, but also with your company. The more successful your team is as a whole, the more you will be noticed. Also, find opportunities to build stronger relationships with those on your team. If you feel you don’t know someone well, call them to share ideas, work on a project together, or just talk to get to know each other better.
  • Solution Driven – Are you driven to find answers, or do you get hung up on the problem or why it can’t be done? Rather than presenting issues to others, always have some possible solutions and options to present with the issue. Don’t present issues for others to solve, but instead use them as a way to orchestrate your own creative results.
  • SelfDriven – Those that take action rather than waiting to be led by the hand, get the most visibility.   Take initiative – don’t wait for others to motivate you, create projects and tasks for you, or give you ideas. Leaders drive positive change and results rather than just being involved in them. As long as you work within your company and team’s guidelines, create opportunities to increase their success, and ultimately yours.

By focusing on these key items, remote employees can increase their visibility and ultimate success when working remotely.




Technology Tools for Remote Workforces – To IM or not?

Is Instant Messaging a good tool for a remote or dispersed workforce? The answer is Yes and No. It all depends on how it is used.

Keeping communication flowing between a dispersed team takes much more effort than when they are based in one office. This means that other technology tools must be utilized so that frequency doesn’t drop in the absence of regular face to face opportunities. One popular tool is Instant Messaging, which allows everyone to stay connected by quickly typing in a short question or chat that then pops up directly on the targeted individual’s computer. There are good and bad things about this.

The Good:

  1. It bridges the distance gap by making a team feel like they are constantly connected, similar to the cell phone texting craze! In an office people can stop by to ask a quick question or connect – IM allows them to do that virtually so communication isn’t restricted.
  2. It also can help build the team’s sense of community by keeping them more connected which keeps those working relationships stronger.

The Bad:

  1. It is a huge time zapper – even if it only takes 1 minute to read and respond to an IM, it has really taken 10-15 minutes of your time. This is because it takes that amount of time to get back to the same level of concentration toward what you were working on before the interruption. So six quick IMs a day could potentially deplete one hour of productivity.
  2.  Managers can fall into a bad habit of using it to see if someone is working and online. Don’t use IM as a time card or status checker. This leads to micro management and is just a lazy management style. Employees need to be able to log off of IM so they can concentrate on projects without interruptions.

The Ugly:

  1. People don’t realize that a company is liable for all communication sent electronically including IMs and can be liable if they ever go through legal discovery.
  2.  IM can be too informal and therefore cause conflicts between employees due to misinterpretations. We miss more communication nuances when using IM that we would have picked up through verbal or face to face interaction.

To ensure that IM becomes a useful rather than detrimental tool to office productivity, some rules should be agreed upon:

  1. Agree that employees should turn off IM when working on projects so they are not interrupted.
  2. Do not use it as a tool to monitor when they start or end work.
  3. Set standards about what types of content and communication IM should be used for.
  4. Let employees know that all IM is captured and potentially monitored by the company.

If a company or remote team is going to utilize Instant Messaging as a communication tool, it is important that they set up guidelines and expectations around its use, so it does not negatively impact productivity.




Remote Manager MD

When managing a team of remote employees, how do you know if you have a healthy team?  When you don’t see your team all of the time, it can be tough to discover team issues.  However, there are many symptoms that can indicate signs of trouble.  If identified early enough, and corrected with the right management prescription, you can heal a team’s problem areas.  Below are some key symptoms and their corresponding remedies.

  • team_workThe team doesn’t work together – In general does the team not collaborate or reach out to each other for idea sharing?  Is it a team of independent mavericks working like independent entities?   If so, this could be a clear sign that they don’t feel like they are a cohesive unit.  They may not rely on other team members because they don’t recognize the value in them, or they are not aware of what they can offer them.

Managers can correct this type of team ailment, by building a team culture and finding ways for team to work together.   This will need to be continuously reinforced when opportunities arise:

  1. Create a sense of “team” by finding opportunities to get them to feel like they belong to a team and generating team “spirit.”  Create a team identity with a team logo, mission statement or motto.  Reinforce it by getting your team personal items that contain this logo or motto such as shirts, hats or coffee mugs.  Have the team participate as a group to come up with this motto.
  2. Find opportunities to celebrate with the team.  Highlight successes on calls (both individual and group).  Share funny stories about times together.
  3. Find opportunities for team members to work on projects together.  Pair up people who wouldn’t normal work together or who haven’t formed a visible bond.  If there are no current projects to pair them up on, have them come up with some best practices for a team issue, and share them with the team at the next call or meeting.
  • The “It’s not my job” syndrome – Do members of the team avoid helping others or avoid taking on extra tasks for the good of the team? Are they never willing to go above and beyond when a project needs it?  Are they “to busy?”  This could be an indicator that employees don’t feel supported, or don’t feel that there is any benefit for doing something outside of their job.  This can happen when major change happens in a company, if that change isn’t handled via good change management steps.  It can also happen if employees are over taxed or there are no clear job goals.  This symptom will also appear if there is a fear of job loss due to recent large company layoffs, or the threat of layoffs.

The best strategies for these issues involves priority and goal setting with employee involvement in  setting  their own goals, change management to prepare for upcoming company shifts, reinforcing and rewarding desired behaviors.

  1. Employees who are always handed their goals and priorities, will not feel ownership in them and can become demotivated.  Many managers find that if they ask their employees what goals they want to obtain (rather than dictating them), employees will stretch and accomplish farther than the manager would have set.   The most effective goal setting happens when priority and goal meetings are a continuous process between a manager and employee.  Ideally set quarterly goals with weekly check in conversations.  This helps employees stay focused on what is important to the team and company, and not lose sight by focusing on what they misperceive as important.   Goal setting also helps employees see the future (with them in it) if there are recent company layoffs.
  2. When companies are preparing for large changes, such as a new software implementation or processes, the best way to ensure employee buy in is to get them involved at the beginning, before the change happens.  Get their opinions and feedback.  Establish a change leader in each department to be involved in the initial pilot or development.  They will help carry a positive message back to their teams and help squash negative grumblings.
  3. Are employees rewarded for going the extra mile?  This doesn’t mean a monetary incentive, rather do they get positive accolades?  Is there a perceived benefit if they go the extra mile: they get to see their ideas implemented, they are included in team decisions more often, they can become a product expert, etc. . . If there is no perceived benefit, they will stop stretching.  Find way to reinforce the positive results of putting in the extra distance.
  • Employees don’t take initiative – If your employees don’t think out of the box or take initiative and need approval/affirmation for every little thing, it could be a good indicator that they are micro-managed.  When employees are not self-motivated, or seem to need a lot of hand holding, it means that they haven’t been trained, or encouraged, to make decisions or take initiatives without getting prior approval from their manager.   If they are always told what to do, they won’t do anything unless you tell them.

To stop the micro-management, find opportunities for employees to manage themselves.  Set parameters for them to work within, then let them make their own decisions within them.  Put systems in place for them to hold themselves accountable and encourage them to take initiatives.

  1. Set up the parameters for employees to work within, and define the end goal, but then let them make their own decisions within those parameters in reaching that goal.  Like putting up bumper guards at a bowling alley, the guards are the rules they need to play within, and the goal is to hit down all 10 pins.  However, how many times they bounce off the guards, how fast the ball goes, if there is a curve or spin on it, etc., are all up to the employee.
  2. Find ways for employees to hold themselves accountable.  If as a manager, you have to constantly ask employees if they have completed their tasks or met their goals, you will be wasting too much of your time that could be focused on more important strategic or macro view items.  Also, employees will resent you if you have to do this.  Instead, have employees track their own progress.  Work with them to set goals, and have them report weekly on how they are accomplishing those goals.  No one wants to come to their manager and tell them they did a bad job.  This self-accountability will free you up as a manager, and self-motivate your employees to reach goals.
  3. Encourage self-decision making through including them in team decisions and asking them their opinions.  By soliciting employee feedback and involving them in decisions, you will be teaching them the skills they need to take initiative.
  • Employees don’t apply or implement team policies or ideas – Do your employees implement team or company ideas or changes once they are informed of them?  Or do they seem to go into one ear and out the other?  They may be interpreting the message differently or may not know how to put it into practice.

To ensure that new ideas or policies actually get implemented, find ways to repeat and reinforce the message not only verbally, but within practice.  If ideas are just mentioned once and then you move on to the next, your employees will do the same.  It takes at least 12 times to make something a habit, so if you don’t get your employees to act on the idea at least 12 times, it will disappear.

  1. Are messages being clearly and consistently conveyed by all of management?  You want to make sure that the entire management team is on board and finding opportunities to repeat the message and its importance.  Repetition of the message by different persons, will also help bring clarity to employees of what the exact message is.
  2.  Are messages and decisions being reinforced with actions?  You can’t tell a team something once and forget about it.  You need to make sure that examples of the message are identified and incorporated in everyday practice.  Conduct action learning to practice the new idea.  Engage employees by bringing it up in conversations with them and ask how they have implemented it.

Employee’s consistently don’t meet deadlines or goals – have employees set their own goals, have them hold themselves accountable




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