The pandemic has upended every aspect of the workplace. Casual lunchroom conversations are gone, replaced with incessant Zoom sessions. While working remotely has many advantages, it fundamentally alters the nature of workforce engagement. And as many leaders discovered, holding remote workers accountable is much different (and more difficult).
When people work face to face, trust builds naturally. Casual interactions, body language, and frequent socializing strengthens the bonds between people and therefore builds trust. Consequently, leaders who were able to manage accountability through casual interactions pre-pandemic, lost this ability when the workforce became remote. Since remote work is here to stay, this problem of accountability persists in many organizations.
As mentioned in a previous blog, I have been lurking in many on-line forums for leadership as well as Reddit’s (in)famous Antiwork forum. Lack of clarity around expectations, schedules, and responsibilities is a persistent source of ire among Antiwork commenters. In one Anitwork post, a remote worker dodged repeated, angry calls from his manager demanding he get online to finish a project, that was not his responsibility. Likewise, in my work with other startup CEOs, there are recurring complaints about holding remote workers accountable and maintaining deadlines.
Accountability (or a lack thereof) impacts both leaders and employees. Yet, like many other organizational problems, leaders must embody the behaviors they wish to see in others. As such, here are ten tips for improving accountability among a remote workforce. These tips are derived from my own experience as a founder/CEO as well as providing advisory services to other startup CEOs.
Ten Tips for Remote Worker Accountability
1. Doc It
Talk is cheap and easily forgotten. Whenever a decision is made, an issue discussed, or a plan made, document it. This ensures everybody is working from a shared, trusted source of information and not memory. There are numerous collaboration tools, like Atlasian’s Confluence, Microsoft Sharepoint, or Trello which provide tools to capture agreed upon goals and plans. For lower tech workplaces, pen and paper are equally effective.
2. Make Meetings Matter
It is extremely easy for people to waste time babbling and pontificating in meetings. This feels like work. It is not. Silence the babblers, stay on task, and keep meeting short. Also, document action items from meetings, to prevent repeating the same topics in subsequent meetings.
3. Hope is for the Holidays
One of the more insidious weasel words in corporate speak is “hope.” As in “I hope to get work done.” When people say hope, they are avoiding commitment and passing off accountability to the whims of fate. Stop all use of the word hope. Require people to use the word “plan” or “intend.” This may seem trivial, but it makes a significant difference in perception of a commitment.
4. Be Curious
If your team is missing deadlines, rather than blame, be curious. Use exploratory questions such as: “What is holding you back?” “How can I help you?” “What happened to delay the project?” Avoid “why” questions, as they sound like blame. Curiosity drives people to hold themselves accountable.
5. Silence Blame
Blame is a potent workplace toxin. Blame is how everybody (managers and employees) side-steps accountability. It feels satisfying and justified to blame somebody else yet it accomplishes nothing. Shut down blame and refocus everybody to solving problems and accomplishing goals.
6. Pour on the Praise
If blame is a workplace toxin, praise is an effective antitoxin. When team members meet commitments and accomplish goals, praise them openly and profusely. Reward the behaviors you want, and you will get more of them.
7. Set and Respect Schedules
Have all team members set and commit to a recurring work schedule. This not only replicates the cadence of going to a physical office, but it also sets boundaries for when meetings or quick chats are acceptable. Boundaries that leaders must respect.
8. Open Calendars
Shared calendars are an ideal way for everybody to transparently communicate their availability as well as their work schedule. This ensures those boundaries mentioned earlier are communicated effectively. Communicate the importance of this transparency to the team. Then ask the IT team to open calendars for sharing. Establish a requirement that everybody, including leadership, is expected to maintain their calendar. Anybody concerned about privacy issues can block out private meetings or use a personal calendar on a different platform.
9. Beware of the Likability Conundrum
Being clear, resolute, and consistent with expectations are good leadership practices. Those behaviors will also cause some people to dislike you because they do not like being held accountable. This is the Likability Conundrum. You can be an effective leader, yet people will still dislike you. When the team meets goals, produces results, and receives praise for the success, the dislike caused from being held accountable will fade.
10. Cameras On
When you can see a person’s face, you communicate more effectively and build trust more naturally. Require cameras on for all meetings.
The core concept of holding remote teams accountable is increased formality. When people work face-to-face, they build informal avenues of accountability. Remote workforces demand a more formalized approach, especially when it comes to documentation.
Moreover, formalized practices also set clear boundaries. This allows both leaders and employees to work within established rules and expectations, while also allowing people to leave work behind when the logoff.
Even with the pandemic subsiding, remote work is here to stay. As such, rather than forcing people back into the office, update your accountability practices to work for both remote and on-site people.