Expectations and Accountability: The Critical Challenges For Remote Workers

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Feb 19, 2016
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.

As a manager, engaging employees on the job is a constant search for balance.

  • You want to praise their hard work and effort, but not make them feel too self-conscious or patronized.
  • You want offer incentives to motivate them, but you also want to hold their results accountable.
  • You want to be flexible and nice, but at the same time you can’t bend in every direction.

More than anyone else, the manager sets the fun/work balance for the office, and is responsible for keeping everyone on an even keel. But that can be extra difficult when trying to engage remote workers, who now make up 43 percent of employees in the U.S.

The remote boat

The struggle to strike a balance with teleworkers comes from the idea of giving employees more autonomy, probably the biggest benefit employees receive from working remotely.

More and more, businesses are seeing increased autonomy as a good thing – it has great influence on employee satisfaction, which can lead to several other positive outcomes. Study after study tells us that giving employees more empowerment and autonomy simply makes them happier and more productive at their jobs.

But it also creates a paradox of sorts: We want to give them more autonomy but at the same time it needs to be balanced with accountability, which can become easily obfuscated in a remote working situation.

The point is sometimes it can be hard to tell if you are giving workers more autonomy or adding more disorganization for yourself by allowing them to work remotely.

That’s because everyone has their own idea of what autonomy means – to one employee it could mean working all week with their head down without talking to anyone. To another, it could mean daily check-ins. Yet another might prefer to cram all their work into the first few days of the week.

People may also change their work habits altogether once they gain added autonomy.

Setting expectations

Some workplaces have formal policies on expectations from teleworkers, but as it’s still a relatively new thing, many don’t – in our company, for instance, HR leaves it up to the individual managers to sort out the best arrangements with their remote employees.

This is one of those things that is easy to say, but not so easy to do. But still, you must be able to define what autonomy means to yourorganization first to set proper expectations.

Here is my go-to list:

  • Set remote office hours/email deadlines – A chief benefit of working remotely is setting your own hours, but if you’re only getting emails on Friday evenings from your teleworkers, it can seem like they’re on their own schedule, or worse, disengaged from the organization, which is a real fear. Don’t be afraid to set email deadlines and ask them to stay aligned with actual office hours. You’d be surprised at how simple a conversation this is as long as you bring it up beforehand.
  • Design an accountability structure – Remember that the employee doesn’t always know how to get the most out of a remote work situation either. Many know that they would enjoy the autonomy, but don’t know what doing it successfully would actually would look like, so help them out! Have the conversation about accountability. What can be expected on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis? How will we measure success? When you set tolerable limits it becomes much easier for everyone to meet expectations. Each person is different, so remain flexible enough to adapt on the fly as you learn more about what works and what doesn’t.
  • Schedule weekly check-ins – The weekly check-in can be a manager’s best friend when it comes to teleworkers as long as it’s used efficiently. It’s important to let the employee know it’s not an issue of trust, merely a way for you to stay informed about their workflow. There are four questions I always make sure to ask on a weekly check-in:
    • What are you working on?
    • Are you facing any challenges?
    • How can I help? and,
    • How is everything else?

You might already know the answers to those questions, but the time spent making the personal connection and keeping them close to the organization’s pulse is what’s important.

The Power of Expectations

The benefit of autonomy is increased happiness and job satisfaction. The drawback of autonomy is that you can’t always know exactly what the employee is up to.

But trust me – nine times out of ten the autonomy that comes with working from home is a good thing, and the employees that really want it are probably going to be smart about it.

If you’re still worried, setting proper expectations is the best insurance policy. No matter how the world changes, it has always taken clear expectations from management and a good balance of work and fun to keep everyone running smoothly, even when they’re not in the office.

This was originally published on the Michael C. Fina blog.

This article is part of a series called Remote Work.