Are You Trusting Your Remote Team -- or Ignoring Them?

Last Updated Jun 2, 2010 6:45 AM EDT

Which is worse for team morale: managers who constantly nag and check in, or those of us who leave the team alone to do their work until we're needed? The fact is that both create problems, and it's not always easy to walk the line between them.

The days of micromanaging are pretty much numbered. First, because we know it doesn't work and is just annoying to all concerned. Second, and maybe more important, it's physically impossible to stay on top of everyone all the time when your team is scattered all over the company, country or globe. Trying to be everywhere at once and plugging yourself into every conversation is a losing proposition.

Knowing this, some managers go to the opposite extreme. Under the guise of trusting our people and expecting them to reach out if needed, we often don't check in often enough. While this might seem noble (after all, we know our folks are adults, and we'll treat them that way), it's often a cover for laziness or setting poor priorities -- and the price is a lack of trust and employees who are vulnerable to the first recruiter that comes along.

Here are some questions to ask yourself so you know you're doing your job:

  • Do you have an agreed upon schedule for communication, and do you stick to it? Rather than communicate only on an "as needed" basis, you can prevent a lot of mistrust and problems by establishing a regular communication schedule and sticking to it. Weekly one-on-one phone or Skype calls, for example, will often give you regular enough contact to monitor your employees and see how they're doing. If you maintain the schedule, employees will trust you enough to reach out only when something's really important, saving the little stuff for these meetings. If you regularly brush these off, though, you're sending the message that they are not as important as everything else you have going on. You might see it as trusting them enough to not worry; they see it as neglect.
  • Is one-on-one communication the only means of check-in at your disposal? If your team only communicates via email and phone, you don't really know what's going on when you're not there. This results in either people burying you alive in cc:ed emails (which are so overwhelming you can't really follow anything) or the paranoid voice in your head demanding to know what's going on that makes you start stalking your team. If your team uses wikis, blogs and shared files, you can easily check discussion threads for the good news that your team is humming along and working together. You can also spot signs of trouble -- like a flurry of panicky questions or sudden silence.
  • When was the last time you asked your team how often they want to talk to you? One person's trusting, hands-off approach is another person's neglect and lack of assistance. Ask each team member how often they want to be in regular contact with you and other team members. Find out why that's important to them and why it matters. This can also change from time to time as deadlines and milestones draw near. Constantly check your assumptions.
  • Do you know what's going on around them? Remote employees have a different set of distractions and priorities than co-located team members. People who work from home have constantly changing distractions. For example, if it's July, the house might be full of screaming kids who want to go to the pool. Employees on virtual project teams might be working in an office with lots of distractions or a direct boss who has suddenly put other demands on their time. Take the time to check in and ask about what's going on. Then you'll know if you're not hearing from them because everything is fine or they are buried alive under other work. Plus, asking about something besides the impending deadline builds relationships and trust and looks like you care.
Even the most well-intentioned leader can send the wrong signal to their team. Don't let them confuse your trying not to micromanage with neglect.

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photo by flickr user laverrue CC 2.0