By Wayne Turmel

When people are new to leading remote teams, the most frequently asked question we get is, “How do you know they’re really working?” It seems like a reasonable question at first; after all, that’s why you’re paying them, and you want to be sure the goals are being met and tasks achieved when you’re not around. But is that what you’re really asking?

When people ask me what people are doing, I usually respond with “why do you ask?” After looking at me like I’m crazy, they usually respond with a couple of answers:

  • They want to know that people are going to achieve the goals and tasks laid out for them, on time and at the right level of excellence.
  • They want to be sure people have the help and resources they need to get the job done.
  • They want to make sure that any work others are relying on gets done and information and outputs are passing between team members as they should.
  • They want to make sure people are actually working on tasks, and not standing in line at Target.

Three of those are perfectly valid reasons for concern. The fourth may be a sign that you are focusing on activity rather than production. This isn’t restricted to people who work remotely by the way. If you have a teammate who is always at his or her desk on time, constantly complains about how busy they are but seems more in-the-know about celebrity gossip or the latest cat videos than what’s happening with the Jackson account, you know what I’m talking about.

Managing activity means you’re trying to control what people are actually physically doing at any moment frozen in time. “I don’t pay them to spend all day on Facebook” is a perfectly valid sentiment. However, does taking a break for a couple of minutes to do something relaxing mean deadlines are missed or work isn’t done on time?

As a manager, focus on getting agreement on what needs to be done, by when, to what standard, and to whom. Then you can settle on milestones that make you both comfortable:

  • Do you need updates weekly? Daily?
  • How do you need those updates? Is a simple email or IM check-in enough or do you want to have full conversations?
  • If people aren’t going to be at their computers at a given time, should they fix their status updates or give you a heads-up? Just because someone doesn’t respond right away doesn’t mean they’re not working (in fact, it could mean the exact opposite!), but if you need to be reassured, it’s okay to establish what you need for your own comfort while not appearing to micro-manage them.

If you have good, open communication with your team members about what needs to be done, you’d be surprised how good they are at making that happen. That doesn’t mean you don’t establish check-ins and milestones so that both you and they are left in the dark worrying about what’s going on. And it’s absolutely critical that honest, two-way communication happen regularly to make sure everyone’s work is getting done in a way that makes everyone comfortable.

To learn more about managing and leading remote teams effectively, check out our How to Create and Manage Remote Teams program here.


Wayne Turmel--The Remote Leadership Institute

Wayne Turmel
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager

Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in

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