I’m worried a remote direct report isn’t actually working
While you’re stressing out about whether your remote is working — Why haven’t they sent an update? Why aren’t they on chat? —your remote could be stressing out about whether you trust that they’re working. And ironically, these doubts could be taking up precious time and mental space for both of you.
Instead of letting your worry distract you and potentially harm your relationship with your direct report, or even their performance, take action.
What could be going on?
- You’re falling prey to unproven fears because you can’t see your remote working, are new to managing remotes, or have been burned by remotes in the past.
- The person is, in fact, getting plenty done but not updating you to the extent that you want.
- Poor communication tools (or poor use of them) is making it hard for you to keep tabs on the person’s output.
- There’s a time zone or cultural barrier getting in the way of your working relationship.
- You haven’t provided the person with enough guidance — maybe because it’s hard to do so over chat or video — resulting in work that’s incomplete or disappointing.
- The person really isn’t working enough or to a high enough standard.
How to handle it:
1. Focus on what your remote has accomplished, not on whether you can see him or her accomplishing it.
Remote team members force managers to confront the extent to which they’ve been letting sheer face time bias their views of a direct report’s productivity. Seeing a co-located direct report work late or through lunch, for example, doesn’t actually say much about their efficiency. Yet it could lead you to think they’re getting more done than a remote team member — someone whose effort isn’t visible to you.
To fight this potential bias, make a list of what your remote has accomplished in the past month or quarter. Don’t rely on your memory, which is prone to highlight and corroborate your fears. Instead, objectively assemble the facts: Go back to old emails, lists of goals from planning meetings and performance reviews, and task updates in project management tools.
Even if you do notice a drop in production — your remote is completing fewer support tickets this month compared to last, for example — consider whether it really indicates that they haven’t been working enough. Could it be that their output the past two months was unsustainably high, meaning what you now see is only a return to normalcy?
If you do uncover evidence of underperformance, you’ll need to address the cause, whether it’s a motivation issue or skill gap. For help, see Direct report is slacking off and Direct report tried but underperforms.
2. Take steps to build trust and rapport with your remote direct report.
If you don’t trust your remote, it’s all too easy to use the physical distance as an excuse to disengage with the person. Maybe you delegate fewer assignments, check in less frequently, or hold off on providing tough feedback or development opportunities.
That only compounds the problem. First, a weak relationship with you — the person’s main connection to the company — might de-motivate them and hamper their performance. Second, if their output really is suffering, they need more attention from you, not less. And third, when you stop trusting someone with important work, you give them fewer opportunities to prove themselves, creating a vicious cycle of low expectations yielding low performance.
To build or rebuild trust with your remote, try:
- Getting to know your remote better. Maybe you reserve the first 5 minutes of every 1-on-1 for informal chatting or finally make the effort this quarter to visit your remote in person. On occasion, check in on how being remote is working out for the person: “How are you handling the lack of separation between home and work? Do you have something that helps you decompress?”
- Asking your remote for feedback on what you could do better as a manager. When you ask your remote in a genuine way, it sends a signal that you value their opinion. You’re more likely to get honest, helpful input if you ask for feedback in a specific area; for example how you’re addressing some of the common challenges that remotes face: “How am I doing with sharing company news? Is there anything that’s come up recently that you wish you had more (or even less) detail or context on?”
For more, see Zipp’s tips: How I build trust on my team.
3. Seek and apply insights from peer managers who have remote team members.
Every organization has its own culture around remote work. To better navigate yours, turn to the knowledge bank that’s already all around you: your peers. All the better if you can find a manager of remotes whose roles are similar to the one your remote holds. You’re more likely to find such a peer if you’re consistently developing a strong internal peer network.
Once you book time with experienced peers, you could ask questions like:
- “Have you had similar concerns about a remote’s work habits? What happened? And what did you learn from the experience?”
- “How do you establish and maintain trust with your remote direct reports?”
- “Which communication and project management tools are you using? How are they working for you and your team?”
Try out what seems relevant to your situation. Then share how it goes with your peers to help refine and reinforce effective management practices across your organization.
4. Clarify and align your performance expectations with your remote.
What if your remote thinks their work is exactly what you’re looking for — when it’s not? This is more common than you might think.
The problem often lies in how you’ve set and enforced (or failed to set and enforce) performance expectations, which can be especially tricky with remotes. For example, a co-located direct report can often turn around, point to their draft customer report, and ask you, “How’s this looking?” to be sure they’re on track. But it’s much tougher for a remote to have these kinds of spontaneous exchanges that might not seem like much as they’re happening, but can go a long way toward aligning expectations between a manager and direct report.
In addition to going over instructions carefully with your remote, try:
- Using visual aids. Think slide decks, images, mock-ups, and spreadsheets — anything to help direct reports literally see what you mean when you’re giving instructions. You could even consider mailing something for your remote to see, hold, and inspect, like a physical prototype or a blown-up.
- Probing for input and understanding. This is especially important during chat or phone conversations. Try asking questions like, “Does this approach feel doable to you, given what I’m asking for and your other responsibilities?” or “What do you think will be most challenging about this project?”
- Following up. Since remotes can’t tap you on the shoulder for a quick reminder, be sure to send a written recap of what you both discussed, both so your remote has an opportunity to clear up misunderstandings and so you have a written record you can refer to in the future to gauge progress.
5. Clarify and align your communication expectations — for both 1-on-1 and team updates.
No manager wants to play the role of parole officer, using the pretense of a quick check-in to confirm a remote is working — that makes the shortlist for ways to damage trust. But consider what a difference establishing communication expectations upfront can make: If you’ve preemptively agreed to share updates at certain intervals, what might otherwise come off as micromanaging becomes something routine, a natural part of your working relationship and the whole team’s culture.
To set and uphold expectations around how, and how often, your remote provides progress reports, consider:
- The frequency and level of detail you want in 1-on-1 updates. Depending on your situation, you could ask for a status update each morning, or weekly, or whenever your remote hits a milestone in the work. It could be a brief email or call with highlights, or an in-depth report. Err on the side of overcommunication at the outset so that you feel like you’re getting the information you need. You can always pare back, removing a control or check in once you and your remote are in sync.
- Team-wide protocols. If everyone else on the team is following a system for sharing goals and updates, your remote should, too. Don’t underestimate the element of social pressure — remind your remote of what the whole team has agreed to do. Should they email recaps to everyone after sales decisions? Post to a chat channel when they uncover a potential fork in the road? Promptly update the team’s project or task management tool? If your team doesn’t follow specific practices like these, consider meeting as a group and brainstorming ideas for some.
- What works best for your remote. If your remote thinks more communication is unnecessary, or you feel your requests set off an alarm that you don’t trust them, share how more and better communication will help you both: “If we all have more insight into each other’s work, we’ll be able to catch and address issues earlier.” Also, be sure to acknowledge (and correct!) any communication roadblocks your remote may have faced: Perhaps the team’s been huddling in-person without videoing them in, you’ve been ignoring time zone differences and IMing during their lunch hour, or no one ever trained them on the project management tool everyone uses.
6. Make check-ins more interactive — for example, have your remote screen-share work.
Maybe you need to see a remote’s work, not just hear about it, to take the guesswork out of what the person is getting done. And when you visually review work together during a check-in, you create the opportunity for a back-and-forth discussion that can be used for feedback, coaching, and development. Screen-sharing could also circumvent cultural or language barriers. There’s less to interpret if you’re both looking at the same thing, versus inferring progress from tone and your or your remote’s understanding of a second language.
If you’ll need time to review the work before the check-in, be sure you give your remote enough advance notice. And use our team feedback assessment to ensure you’re actually giving helpful feedback, not just verifying whether something is done, which can be perceived as micromanaging.