Breaking the Ice: How to Stop Micromanaging Your Remote Employees

More professionals than ever are remote workers. Companies are supporting this trend to provide flexibility, which is seen as more important than ever. In some sectors, it is the most effective way to access a global talent pool.

For employees in big companies, remote work — also known as telecommuting — is giving people the option of 30 more minutes in bed or with their families instead of 30 minutes or more commuting. Giving your team the ability to reduce the amount of time they spend stuck in traffic is a great way to keep them happy and engaged for longer.

But what if you — as a manager or business owner — don’t believe or agree with the concept of remote working? Would you prefer your team in the office during working hours? Or if you do allow remote work, is micromanaging — or “checking in with” your team — your preferred management style?

In this article, we put some myths to bed and talk about ways managers can let go of the micromanaging approach and trust those remote workers to get on with work. Let’s start with 10 myths that need debunking about remote workers.

10 most common misconceptions about remote work

#1: Remote employees don’t work as hard

In fact, the opposite is true. Out of sight does not mean out of mind, and off-site doesn’t mean a remote employee is binge-watching the latest series of Netflix.

Studies show that free from the distractions of an office environment, sometimes known as the “cake in the break room effect”, remote workers are more efficient, work harder and are able to focus more effectively.

A Harvard Business Review study found that productivity increases by 13.5% when companies implement a remote working policy.

One reason for this is that remote workers are often concerned that managers may not think they’re as productive as colleagues they can see and interact with, so they work even harder as a result.

#2: Remote workers aren’t working

Not true. Business thrives on deadlines, open communication and meeting expectations.

A remote worker who’s taking a spa appointment in the middle of the day isn’t going to be able to meet deadlines very well.

People who need the constant company and supervision of others aren’t likely to cope well as a remote worker, so they’re unlikely to apply for those sorts of roles.

Managers therefore need to trust that they’ve hired the right people for the work. Results will show whether they are right. It won’t take long to see who’s available for calls and meetings during their respective working hours (depending on time zones).

Studies also show the regular enough contact with a manager, such as daily or weekly, can increase productivity as much as 52%. However, contact doesn’t need to be more than that, except when needed, as that would take us into the territory of micromanaging and might have a negative impact on productivity.

#3: Data isn’t safe with remote workers

In part, this depends on your relationship with the remote worker. Are they an employee or a freelancer?

As an employee, you can put IT policies and systems in place, such as a VPN and two-factor authentication, to secure the data that is going between internal and external networks and systems.

When you are working with freelancers, if you are worried about data security, you can ask that they put similar systems in place, or they can be given access to your own systems to safeguard customer data and sensitive information.

#4: Communication is ineffective

As a manager with remote employees or a team, this is something you need to work on. Companies who’ve successfully implemented these policies, either partially or with completely

remote teams scattered around the world, always talk about the key role that communication plays in keeping teams strong.

@anniespratt — Unsplash

When you’ve got a remote team, you need systems and policies in place to encourage and support consistent communication. Everything from daily to weekly project updates, to instant message chat sessions, off-site team meetups and even time for casual Skype catchups are encouraged.

Make sure people get to know one another. Encourage conversations. This makes up for some of what is lost when people aren’t in the office together: non-verbal communication and unexpected chats.

#5: Conference calls are a nightmare

We’ve all experienced bad conference calls.

From poor connections to pointless conversations, periods of silence and people being on the call and forgotten about. Most of the time, those who aren’t talking are busy doing something else and only half-listening.

A bad conference call can be a huge waste of time and effort.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Set out an agenda. Send out and receive as much information beforehand, so that a virtual meeting is a chance to discuss ideas and solve problems, not catch everyone up on something that could be sent via email, Slack or Telegram. Have an etiquette, a rule book for these meetings, and for the sake of everyone, stick to it.

As a manager, you’ve got the power to make virtual meetings feel real for everyone involved and foster a real productivity boost.

With the right tools and technology (Skype, Zoom, etc.), you can make a video conference call one of the most effective moments in the week. Make sure everyone has high-quality headphones, a broadband connection, video and somewhere quiet where they can join in on the call.

#6: Remote work is lonely work

Some remote workers prefer routine. That might mean working from home most of the week during office hours. For some, that is a perfect arrangement. It doesn’t mean they’re lonely and it doesn’t impact productivity. It often makes them more productive.

Being lonely, despite not being in the office with other colleagues, is rarely a factor that concerns remote workers.

For other remote workers, routine and a mix of locations, from co-working spaces to coffee shops, give them some variety, with meetings and days on-site for a change of pace. Everyone takes a different approach to this and finds a way that works for them, their employers or clients.

#7: Costs increase

Some companies are against the idea of remote work because they fear it will increase IT and therefore overall costs. But studies again show the opposite.

Businesses save money when a percentage of the workforce is remote, reducing the need for as much office space on-site and making office costs more efficient.

#8: A negative impact on company culture

Sure, those “water cooler” and “cake in the break room” chats — and actual cakes — are part of what makes office life more fun. And it’s a shame when that isn’t always possible when some of the team are off-site — or the whole team is, because there isn’t an office.

Remote working is proven to be a great way to bring the team together.

Team members make more of an effort to get to know one another across digital channels. And when there is a chance of meeting up, either socially or to discuss a project, or a few days together in the office, it bonds a team closer.

Companies with completely remote teams, such as Buffer, are said to have amazing company cultures even though they have no office, and they continue to grow successfully and are making a successful profit.

#9: Remote workers always work

Professionals who are successful as remote workers are disciplined and focused. They work just as hard — if not harder — than those in the office. But this doesn’t mean they’re always online and always able to work, especially when it’s outside “office hours” in their timezone.

@bruno_nascimento — Unsplash

Remote workers who are always working are probably not as productive and effective as those with a more rigorous work-life balance. As a manager, support and encourage that to ensure productivity and employee is maintained consistently.

#10: Or they’re busy not working

Without office background noise, remote workers are more likely to stream Spotify or the radio, but that doesn’t meant they’re not working. It is unlikely that they’re binge watching Netflix while working, or on the couch not working at all.

Once managers break away from the idea that remote workers are lazy, or don’t even bother getting dressed, productivity and other studies will show that remote workers are focused, productive and effective members of the team, wherever they are and whatever timezone or country they’re working in.

As we can see, remote workers aren’t lazy.

If you can’t trust someone enough to work at home, what would stop them from simply looking busy in the office? If everyone is typing away, how are you to know whether they’re messaging friends in another country or actually working?

So, assuming you do trust your team enough to work remotely, here are ten ways you can avoid micromanaging them and encourage higher levels of productivity.

10 ways to stop micromanaging your remote team

#1: An open door policy

How do you stop running from one fire to the next?

Make sure that employees and freelancers are able to come to you early when there is a problem. The earlier a problem is raised, the sooner a solution can be found that could prevent it from becoming a more serious issue down the road.

Give your team the support they need without taking over every decision and little detail.

Problems that need solving can encourage managers to think they need to start micromanaging. But that isn’t the case. Keep in regular contact, give them the support they need to solve problems themselves and only start to worry if employees aren’t coming to you with problems. That is often a sign that you might micromanage too much and trust too little.

#2: Stop focusing on the process

Focusing too much on the process and how it’s being observed can make managers short-sighted and ignore whether the process is actually creating the results they need.

Instead, invite employees to share opinions and ideas on what will work for them, how you can get the best out of them and encourage the creation of a process that works for everyone.

#3: Recognize leadership weak spots

No manager is perfect. Everyone has weak spots.

In a management role, micro-managing and not trusting your team is one weak spot that many accidentally fall into. Or you may have other weak spots, such as worrying too much or not trusting remote employees enough.

Do your best to identify yours and find ways to work around the problem, reduce it, and if you can, ask for feedback from your team and then find solutions that mitigate and reduce this weak spot gradually.

#4: Gradually let go

Gradually is often the name of the game when it comes to reducing micro-management anxiety.

Slowly learn to let go. Learn to ping your team less often — instead, set regular check-in times — and if you can, start to delegate aspects of your role when teams are large enough and they clearly need less direct supervision.

Learn to trust them and allow them to solve problems, while always being there through an open door and consistent communication policy.

#5: Stop aiming for perfect

Perfect kills or delays more projects than slight imperfections ever could.

Find ways to make sure team members know when they’ve achieved good enough instead of aiming for a mythical perfect.

Pursuing perfect can give team members a fear to innovate, to try or even to make mistakes. This can cause rounds of endless revisions and project creep, ultimately costing valuable time and money.

#6: Manage the culture

As a manager, your role is to manage and build the right culture for everyone to succeed. Better to spend your time doing this than micromanaging every decision the team makes.

If you create the right culture and communication environment for everyone, then you can be more confident that they are working within the guidelines that you would want, thereby avoiding the need to micromanage.

#7: Demonstrate trust

Delegating is a sign of trust. When you are managing more than ten people directly, it might be worth putting one of them in charge of a sub-team. Or find ways to put people in charge of aspects of the project and various features.

This way, others can see that people who work hard and deliver results are rewarded with more responsibility, and ultimately, the potential for promotions and career advancement.

#8: Create transparency

Transparency is an essential element of how managers create a trusting culture. Build this into the culture and process to encourage your team to make better decisions and place more trust in you, as a manager, so that you can increase your trust in them. Transparency is good, especially for remote teams.

#9: Manage expectations

Effective leaders find ways to remove themselves from daily responsibilities so that they can make a higher quality of strategic decisions that impact the whole team. Managers do this by setting expectations and managing those, instead of managing individual decisions and team members.

#10: Give remote team members more responsibility

Asking employees how they want to be managed and how often they want you to check in is a great way to give them more autonomy and responsibility.

Sometimes the best way to learn is to dive right in.

In some cases, when delegating, you need to give them more authority and responsibility than you feel comfortable with, in order to see how they do and whether they can be trusted with more.

Other ways to stop micromanaging

  • Set specific and routine check-in and call times with different team members. Not only does this make your day easier to plan, it gives them routine and stops them from working that you are going to call unexpectedly when they’re busy working.
  • When you’ve had a great idea, wait for those regular calls to let them know — unless it’s really urgent and will have a direct impact on what they’re doing.
  • When delegating, invest time upfront to make sure those with responsibilities for others know what they need to successfully implement the task.

Trusting a remote team isn’t always easy. As a manager, you might find letting go and delegating difficult.

But unless you believe the team is working — and push those myths aside in your mind — then a remote team is never going to be as productive as you need without the right support and culture in place; all of which starts with you as an effective manager.

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Mary Atamaniuk

Mary Atamaniuk is a content writer at YouTeam — a curated b2b tech talent marketplace that matches businesses with dedicated development teams from pre-vetted software outsourcing agencies.

Mary's areas of interest include digital marketing, tech entrepreneurship, and influencer blogging.

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