working remotely
How much does it matter whether remote workers work at a desk?

When it comes to working remotely, one of the biggest differences between successful leaders and those who burn out, making themselves (and everyone else) crazy, is how much time they spend worrying about “if people are working.” It’s not that we’re not concerned about how people spend their time, it’s just usually the wrong question.

If we break that question down to what managers really mean, you can determine its relevance. Usually, that’s not what they really need to know. Here’s what I mean:

If they’re not at their desk, what are they doing?

Leaders who are new to remote work spend a lot of time worrying about this, often to the point of madness. First, it presupposes that if workers arrived at their desks on time and left when they should, the work would get done in between. We have all known people with great attendance records who didn’t get much done over the course of a day. Attendance is not productivity.

Secondly, just because your remote workers don’t pick up the phone on the first ring or respond like Pavlov’s dog to every incoming message or email doesn’t mean they are watching The View or playing with the dog. It is entirely possible they are working on something more important and can’t be interrupted.

The problem is that you don’t KNOW what’s going on. Simply keeping your teammates apprised of your schedule, sharing calendars, using status updates, and simply setting expectations can help eliminate the mystery.

Does the work demand actual, physical presence?

Some jobs (customer service, IT help desk) are defined by response time. Someone needs to be there to pick up the phone or accept the message. For others, it is the volume and quality of work over a given period of time that truly matters (Are their reports coming in on time? Is Bob available when there’s a meeting and his input is required?)  Furthermore, does it actually matter if that work gets done at five in the morning, so that person can go to the gym or duck out to take the kids to school?

And if they are working, does it mean it has to be at their desk in their home office? I live in Las Vegas where the sun shines invitingly, and I have to start really early in the morning to accommodate East Coasters. More than one of these blog posts has been created sitting on my deck drinking coffee, or combining my daily walk with thinking time. If you can’t pick out which ones were written where, what does it matter?

One way to help ease these concerns is just to address them head-on. If someone needs to duck out midday to take the kids to school, can the team cope? Can they be reached in other ways in case of emergency? Will the total work be completed at other times so a half-hour in the middle of the day won’t impact productivity?

Simply using technology to let people know what’s going on reduces a lot of the stress.

They’re working, but do you know what they’re working on?

For many managers, this is the question you should be asking. People often have a tendency to focus on their individual work at the expense of team collaboration and assistance when they work alone. Set expectations for your people, and help them be accountable for their team contributions. Having regular communication (sometimes verbal or webcam, sometimes a simple SLACK message) about what people are doing, expectations and standards will help remove a lot of the nagging doubt.

Do they know what you expect and how you’ll determine success?

This is the most important question of all. If you have had candid conversation about what work needs to be done, how it can meet their needs as well as those of the team, and how you’ll measure success, you can start letting people do their thing. Of course, if standards aren’t met, or people don’t live up to their commitments, or work suffers in some way, coaching and performance management become critical.

And at the end of the day, that’s really the issue for leaders. If you haven’t discussed what they should be doing, aren’t getting evidence of task completion and quality, and don’t have regular communication throughout the work week, you are essentially working in the dark. Doubt sets in, you can’t answer questions that YOU need answered to do your job, and trust erodes.

If you ask the right questions, and work with your virtual team to arrive at mutually-acceptable metrics and standards, you’ll be surprised how little it will matter if someone is tapping on their keyboard at that precise moment.

To learn more about setting expectations and improving accountability both for yourself and your team, check out our on-demand training course, Remote Goal Setting and Accountability



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.

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