As a leader, odds are you keep a lot of running lists. Without them, a lot of us wouldn’t be able to prioritize tasks, remember who is working on which projects, or whether we need to pick up milk before dinner. For those of us who are chronically absent-minded, they can be life savers. But there are times, especially when working with remote employees, when checklists can actually limit communication and reduce our effectiveness.

Whenever I have a conversation with an employee (or my boss) I have a list of things I need: Here are the things I need status updates on, here are the things I need someone’s help with, and so on. If you’ve ever hung up from a call and thought, “ARRRRGGGH I forgot to ask about __________” you understand why that matters. When you work remotely, it’s hard to spin on your heels and walk back to their desk to follow up.

So how can these lists be a bad thing? Over-reliance on checklists can lead to two bad habits of remote leaders and their teams.

Checking off the list becomes the point.

When we’re rushed, and worried that we are taking up people’s time we tend to focus on getting through our checklist as efficiently as possible. While that might be considerate at some level, it also makes us more transactional. We pay attention to what’s on the list, often ignoring other things people may need that might not have occurred to us.

If you’re the leader, your list often becomes the agenda for the meeting.

The team members know you have things you want to discuss and can defer to you. Sometimes that’s fine, but the flip side is team members might not raise issues that are important to them, or interrupt the process with complicating questions or input. You could be inadvertently squelching valuable contribution and feedback.

How then can you avoid letting the very thing that is supposed to make you better at your job become something that gets in the way?

Ways to make your checklist work for you

Send your list out in advance and ask for additions.  Just as with a formal meeting agenda, letting people know what’s on “your list,” and asking for additions helps people be prepared for important conversations. One on ones are meetings.

Also consider letting the other person start with their list. One thing my manager (okay, Kevin) does extremely well is start by asking me, “What’s on your list?” Often, we have duplicate items. Sometimes I have one or two minor things that we can eliminate before getting down to the nitty gritty.

Write your list by hand. The connection between body and mind helps keep things fresh in our minds and decrease the odds of forgetting. We also get a chance to edit and eliminate the less important items if time is a factor. It’s attributed to Confucius that “the faintest ink is better than the strongest memory.”

Many managers are afraid to start with the other person because they are afraid the meeting will go off the rails and they won’t be able to address the items on their list. Don’t worry about that. First of all, if there are duplicate items, you’re still get to check them off. More important, you have a list! Just relax and come back to it when the other person has gone through their topics. 

Checklists are an important tool, but remember why you use them. They are designed to help enhance communication, not narrow it to the point of being unproductive.

The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership has quickly become the go-to guide for leaders striving to adjust to the world of remote work. Get your copy today and learn about the value of checklists and other practical strategies for leading effectively at a distance.


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

Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammateoffers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.

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