Effectively Leading Remote Workers – Step 1: Set Expectations

Do you have anybody on your team that works remotely?

If so, do you have the arrangement set up airtight?

If you do, great! Good on you for doing that leader thing.

If you have ever felt that slight negative pull at your attention about any of your employees who are remote working, then this article is for you. Actually, over the next month there will be a series of articles that cover this topic and they will all be right for you.

I mentioned in the last article that I really do dislike the term “remote working.” The technology is such these days that work is just work. If you have ever checked your work email from a place other than your office, then you were working remotely. If you have ever logged into the VPN to tweak that one document on a Saturday, then you were working remotely.

It’s all just work. Whether you are here or there, technology has made it so it’s all just work. For the sake of these articles, I will keep referring to it as remote work for clarity.

Leading teams where one or more members work remotely will be the focus.

The central question is, “how can I effectively lead a team when some (or all) members are working remotely?

That’s a big topic, so I want to break it down into component parts.

Assuming that the concept of remote work in general is something the company supports, then first major component to effectively leading remote workers is setting clear expectations.

I know, it sounds so “Mom and Dad” to talk about setting expectations, but bear with me for a moment. It’s not as bad as the visual you have in your head.

Setting expectations is simply about arriving at clarity with your remote worker about what the work product is and when it is due.

I cannot stress enough the importance of defining what the work is and when is it due.

“Jonathan, they already know what the work is and when it is due.” I promise you, they don’t. If you have the conversation likely you will be surprised.

Getting clarity by setting the expectation means you will be talking to your remote working employee on some regular basis about what is going on. This can be done in staff meetings, sidebar meetings, phone meetings, Skype, coffee shop, or wherever. The meetings have to be about the work and they have to be regular. Those are the conditions.

Seems so easy, but there are a few things to note.

#1 – Focus less on the how many hours they are¬†working and focus more on the work product. If you are managing the work properly with the remote worker, then the number of hours they put in will become a non-issue. You are paying people to create an end result that has value. You aren’t paying them to sit in a chair for eight hours. Conversely, there can also be too much delegated that has the remote worker putting in way too much time.

The point is that remote working shouldn’t be focused on hours per day. It should be focused on the work itself and how long it takes to complete the work. Properly and actively managing the workload will translate to remote employees that have the right amount to do each day.¬†You won’t automatically know whether the work load is too much or too little. This where the leader thing comes into play.

#2 – Set the recurring meeting. Meetings about the work need to be held consistently. Consistent meetings allow the opportunity to set the expectations with the remote worker. The goal is to arrive at a clear action plan with a clear deadline.

#3 – Actually set the expectation. What is it you want and when do you want it by? Those are the leader questions that need to be answered. By the end of the meeting it should be clear enough that a elementary aged kid would get it. Work out the details of the work as needed in the meetings until the clarity emerges. Have the remote worker tell you what they heard and when they think it is due. Chances are that there is a miscue in there somewhere. Being able to clearly communicate is not as easy as it looks.

#4 – It’s OK to be uncomfortable for a while. If you haven’t set expectations well in the past, then making the change will make you feel uncomfortable. Discomfort does not automatically equate to stopping. Discomfort just means you are doing something outside of your current comfort zone. The secret is that everything worth a darn from here on out will fall outside of your current comfort zone. Sit in the discomfort and then go back the next week and do it again. Everything will be alright.

Part of the work in doing this means you, as the leader, also need to be clear on what you want and when you want it by. If you aren’t clear, how can they possibly be clear?

Now, I get it. You might be trying to convince me that not all work can be defined and done by a date certain. Some work is not that cut and dry, you say. To which I would shake my head in disagreement. That to me is a symptom of mental fogginess. Fogginess is fine – I have been in the fog innumerable times. It usually indicates that I haven’t put in enough brain time yet to get things dialed in.

Getting clear will likely mean you need to spend some time thinking about what needs to be done.

So, feel free to spend the time.

by Jonathan Wilson

Jonathan is the Head Coach at Sandcastle Company, a Seattle-based leadership training organization. His first book, Future Leader: Rebooting Leadership to Win the Millennial and Tech Future [link], is now available. Jonathan regularly writes and speaks about The New Leader Way, leadership resilience, and the future of work. He has years of leadership experience in both the public and private sectors, a master's degree from Seattle University, and professional coach training from the University of Miami.
Published on June 30, 2017

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