Trust, Not Tracking: Managing Remote Teams

04/03/2020 3 min read
Paul Estes
Paul Estes Editor-in-Chief at Staffing.com and host of The Talent Economy Podcast, Paul brings 20 years of executive experience, leading innovation at Microsoft, Amazon, and Dell.
Trust, Not Tracking: Managing Remote Teams

For years, organizations treated remote work as a perk, but the current pandemic has made it a necessity. As companies around the world ask employees to work from home, leaders are rethinking what it means to trust their teams. How do you make sure no one goes AWOL?

Employee tracking tools such as Teramind, Time Doctor, and VeriClock are widely available. These allow managers to monitor anything from billable hours to time spent watching Netflix. Many of these tools rely on invasive techniques such as GPS tracking, automatic screenshots of employees’ computers, and even photos taken with the computer camera. For so much intrusion on privacy, do these tracking tools improve productivity?

There are other solutions. Below are three tips for building strong relationships with remote employees and ensuring efficient work.

1. Establish trust. Building trust between managers and employees, rather than deploying time tracking software, is the key to successfully managing remote teams, according to The Proximity Paradox: How Distributed Work Affects Relationships and Control.

"Managers with remote staff monitor for changes in both behavior and work output to indicate potential problems," wrote Rebecca Downes, author of the study and a PhD candidate researching remote work at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand. By learning more about individual staff, managers are better placed to "more effectively identify, diagnose, and choose corrective actions for potential or current problems," added Downes.

The findings of Downes' research are supported by Great Place To Work, a data science company. They found that organizations with high-trust cultures experience 50 percent lower employee turnover than their industry competitors.

"Regardless of industry, company size, or leadership styles, a high-trust culture is a defining characteristic of every company that wins a spot on the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For, a list that we have produced each year since 1998," noted the organization in its report, The Business Case for a High-Trust Culture.

2. Improve communication. When managers and teams are separated by geographical distance, miscommunication happens. For example, an employee experiencing personal issues might not perform to their usual standard. Without the ability to observe the employee’s facial expressions and body language, or have a chance to chat at lunch, a manager might not realize that they're having a hard time.

Delayed communication can also be a headache for remote managers. Is the employee still working, or have they gone to happy hour?

Managers and remote staff can build better trust by ensuring clear and direct communication at all times.

  • Schedule one-on-one weekly calls. Let employees know they can talk to their managers about anything in their personal lives that may affect their work.
  • Look out for changes in the tone and quantity of communication from remote employees, which can be a sign that something is wrong.
  • Decide when synchronous communication—such as phone calls or video conferences—is necessary, or when asynchronous communication—including Slack and Microsoft Teams—will work.
  • Use video conferencing tools such as Zoom, Google Hangouts, or Webex so managers can read body language and facial expressions.

3. Set expectations. Clear expectations encourage a better work-life balance for managers and their teams. For example, staff spread across different time zones puts extra strain on managers who may feel they need to be available beyond their normal working hours.

"I would respond to pings as soon as I woke up in the morning and before I went to sleep at night," admitted one manager Downes interviewed. "That was very exhausting."

By the same stretch, remote employees may extend their workday to accommodate meetings or demonstrate responsiveness. With this in mind, it's a good idea for both managers and remote staff to be clear about their availability and the best way to get in touch with them for any emergencies that happen off-hours.

While Downes' report found that managers who cultivate deeper relationships with their staff have better efficiency and problem-solving, there was also an unexpected outcome. Working at a distance meant managers actually felt closer to their staff

“I would say it took me longer to form connections," explained one remote worker interviewed for the study, "but they are also deeper than other work connections I've had."

As more companies move to remote work, nurturing a culture grounded in trust, clear expectations, and frequent communication is perhaps more important for managers—and staff—than it has ever been before.

Paul Estes
Paul Estes Editor-in-Chief at Staffing.com and host of The Talent Economy Podcast, Paul brings 20 years of executive experience, leading innovation at Microsoft, Amazon, and Dell.