Managing Team Performance Remotely
Mar 26, 2021
BY DAVID BURKUS
Managing performance is one of the core elements of a manager’s job. After all, that’s why they’re called “managers.”
When it comes to managing performance remotely, it can look—at first glance—like remote leaders would have a difficult time. It’s hard to replicate what often has been labeled “managing” when you’re not in an office setting.
For co-located teams, managers could often manage by walking around, which in a best-case scenario meant checking in regularly on people, and in a worst-case scenario meant monitoring employees’ movements to track when they were at their desks. While the concept was well-intentioned when Robert Waterman and Tom Peters introduced it in 1982, the “management by walking around” method led many managers to focus on activity and not necessarily outcomes. It led many leaders to assume that presence equaled productivity.
And sadly, that assumption carried over into the world of remote work. When the “Great Work-From-Home Experiment” of 2020 began, many companies had to make a quick transition to remote work and sought to manage performance by focusing on the wrong thing: They looked for a technology solution to track and manage employees. And that even led many companies to install spy software on their employees’ computers, just like a worst-case manager at the office. This spy software meant each company-issued computer was tracking which applications employees were using and for how long. And even in the companies that did not monitor employees, too many managers focused on increasing the amount of camera-on meeting time than would be optimal for a remote environment. Digital presence, in the form of seemingly endless videoconferences, became the new proxy for productivity.
Instead of spy software or constant meetings, any performance management plan for a remote team must be built on a foundation of trust and autonomy. You’re not there in the office with the team each day, so you have to trust them to figure out how they’re going to get the tasks assigned to them done. Over the past year, many of them have been working on adjusted schedules to better integrate work and life, and scheduling all those conference calls becomes even more difficult. The focus on trust and autonomy is a good thing, because for decades now, organizational psychologists have proven that autonomy at work makes workers more motivated, more productive, and more engaged. And that bodes well for remote work, since the remoteness has wrested a lot of the control out of managers’ hands already.
In place of control—or the ability to dictate how an employee does a task—autonomy requires remote-team leaders to provide extra feedback and coaching. This is the ability to guide autonomous workers toward discoveries that help them improve performance.
SETTING UP REMOTE MANAGING PRINCIPLES
Here are five ways to shift that focus when managing performance remotely:
Set objectives mutually. When you want to increase people’s sense of autonomy, it’s important that whatever objectives you set come out of a conversation about what is needed and what is realistic. In a remote work environment, many employees feel distant enough from their co-workers and their manager (more on that later). Receiving direct orders about how and when to complete every assignment only adds to that feeling of distance and insignificance or, worse, increases the feeling that even from afar they’re being micromanaged.
You don’t want your people to feel like you’ve just handed them a random set of goals with no consideration of their circumstances or the time frame. If people don’t feel that a goal is feasible, they exert very little effort toward it. And the best way to make objectives seem achievable is to co-create them during a mutual discussion. Guide the whole team through the objectives, projects, and/or deliverables the team is tasked with completing and then co-create specific assignments and deadlines. Stay as flexible as possible when it comes to scheduling, as every member of the team will be integrating their work and life together in different ways to make remote work actually work for them. Your job is to help, not hinder, that process from happening.
Shorten the time frame. At the same time that we’re co-creating objectives and adding flexibility to schedules, we also want to make the time frame for those objectives shorter than many knowledge workers are used to. We’ve known for a while now that annual performance reviews don’t meaningfully affect performance, because the timeline is just too broad to provide real feedback. But it turns out that managing according to the annual objectives, or even the quarterly objectives, similarly fails to have a motivating effect.
Research suggests than when people are faced with distant deadlines for tasks, they perceive the tasks to be harder than they really are and procrastinate longer than they should. This doesn’t mean asking people to do the same work in less time. Instead, it means that it’s best to identify the long-term objectives and work backward to create one-week or two- week work sprints with milestones to measure progress at the end of every period. Shortening the time frame has the added benefit of ensuring that any project pivots or roadblocks have minimal impact on other members of the team, since they’ll see that sooner and respond accordingly.
Teach the team to “work out loud.” If you don’t already have one developed, your team needs a system where teammates can provide regular updates on their progress. They may be working alone, but in order to work best they need to “work out loud” so that all team members know what each other is working on. That doesn’t mean everyone on the team needs to do all their work on a group video chat all day long. But it does mean building a regular team check-in where teammates outline what work they’ve finished, what they’re working on next, and where they might need assistance.
Working out loud boosts performance for several reasons. The first is that it helps you and the team ensure that all the necessary tasks are covered and that no one is accidentally duplicating effort. The second is that it gives space to the team to make requests for help, something that’s normally much harder in a remote environment. Third, and perhaps most important, is that it reminds the team that they’re on a team. They’re working remotely—but they’re not alone.
Check in with different people differently. In addition to helping the team work out loud, increase the frequency of your one-on-one time with every team member. These aren’t formal performance reviews, so there isn’t any need to keep them standardized among people on the team. Ideally, you’re checking in with everyone equally—but equally doesn’t mean the same. Some people will prefer weekly or even daily check-ins (especially those starting out on the team), while others will feel this frequency interrupts them too often and would rather chat every other week.
In addition, the way you do that check-in might vary. Some people prefer a scheduled video call that lets them discuss a wide range of things, while others on your team will want to send you a quick email with updates and questions. As you get to know each person on your team better, you can adjust accordingly. But if you don’t know, default to increased frequency and scale back as you get a feel for what works. The goal is to make sure every team member knows they’re not alone, but also doesn’t think they’re being micromanaged.
Make feedback a true conversation. If you’ve been a leader for longer than a few minutes, you know that people tend to be happiest and most productive when they feel like they can contribute freely—and that includes contributing to the conversation about their own performance. This isn’t just letting them list off “excuses.” Even before going into check-ins or feedback sessions, you’ll want to have a sense of where they might be underperforming and what might be causing it.
You especially want to seek to separate people problems, where performance issues are internal to the team member, from process problems, where the cause is something in the organization or some breakdown of workflow. To learn this best, be sure to take plenty of time to listen as well as talk. Listen as a means to understand employees’ feelings, emotions, and frustrations as they try to perform. That will make it much easier to decide on a proper plan of action to improve performance. The best way to know you’re listening enough is track how many questions you’re asking versus how many statements you’re making. If you’re just talking at them, then you’re delivering a monologue—not having a conversation.
FOCUSING YOUR ROLE AS MANAGER
This isn’t an exhaustive list of the things remote managers need to master, but it’s a great place to get started. By setting objectives mutually, shortening the time frame, teaching the team to work out loud, checking in frequently but differently, and making feedback a conversation, you help focus your role as a manager on the outcomes your team is trying to produce, instead of just the activity they’re doing every day. And it makes it much more likely that your whole team continues to work at their best—from wherever they work.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
David Burkus is an organizational psychologist and author of Leading from Anywhere: The Essential Guide to Managing Remote Teams (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), from which the ideas in this article are based. Learn more at davidburkus.com