Why Good Remote Management Hinges on Outcomes More Than Activities
Remote management is the leadership skill you may not have known you needed—until it became essential. Learning to work with distributed teams has meant a lot of trial and error, and it hasn’t always gone smoothly: In one recent survey, 40% of managers expressed a lack of self-confidence when it comes to managing workers remotely.
But this isn’t something that needs to be figured out from scratch—and we’ve got tips to share. A recent episode of the Back to Better podcast explored best practices for remote teams and why this is the time to question the traditional management styles so many of us are used to.
“Managers need to constantly transform to the current challenges and align themselves to the psychological needs of their best people,” said Tim Sanders, VP of Customer Insights at Upwork and co-host of Back to Better.
“[The best] have made the leap from activities management to outcomes-based leadership,” he said. “That's the change that needs to take place, and it needs to take place now.”
Listen to the full episode for the full discussion or read on for highlights from interviews with Zoë Harte, who leads talent strategy at Upwork, as well as Aaron Dignan and Rodney Evans, co-founders of management consulting business The Ready.
The keyword for managers in 2020: Empathy
This year has pushed teams to perform at a high level while individual team members might be struggling. Flexibility has become more than a perk: It gives workers a sense of control that can help them manage stress and maintain productivity.
Harte emphasized that this is not the typical work-from-home scenario. “We are working during a global pandemic, with a myriad of concerns and challenges that are unique to us on an individual and family basis, but global in terms of the scope and impact,” she explained. “That requires a level of latitude for people just to manage their lives.”
But flexibility requires a high degree of trust. How do you know whether someone is working?
To track this with remote teams, some companies are leaning into tactics that mirror an in-office experience, such as virtual time clocks, video monitoring, and frequent check-ins.
The resulting culture, Harte said, can be pretty insulting—especially to top performers. “Part of what you're doing is telling [your team members] from the onset, ‘I don't trust you.’ If you don't trust me to deliver the work I said, then why will you trust me to be good at my job?”
Instead, she said, effective management means shifting your mindset in two critical ways:
1. Take care of the whole person
Work is a critical part of everyday life, Harte said, but it isn’t the only part—especially in the midst of COVID-19: “It's really about seeing the whole person, and the whole person right now includes their family and their [community].”
2. Emphasize outcomes
Ultimately, you don’t hire someone just to show up and put their time in. It’s what they contribute that moves the business forward. That direction, Harte said, is set at the top: “[Leaders need] to be explicit and clear around where [you’re] going as an organization, and how the work that each individual function—and down to each individual person—contributes to that, so that you know whether the person is delivering the work and the impact that's needed.”
How do you challenge your existing assumptions and start to do things differently? That’s one of the things that Dignan and Evans from The Ready do best.
Outcomes-based leadership helps teams adapt
The sudden shift to remote work exposed a flaw in the status quo for many managers: As Dignan explained, a lot of in-office oversight didn’t actually work, it just felt good. “There was a lot of this, sort of, theater of management and leadership and scrutiny and compliance. That is all part of what makes us feel like we're in control.”
But the reality is that we’re not in control. Whether it’s a pandemic, a natural disaster, a supply chain issue, or a change in business strategy, Evans pointed out that there’s always something new on the horizon. “Do you have the kind of team, and the kind of people on that team, with the capacity to adapt to whatever the new thing is?” she asked.
As disruptive as 2020 has been, Dignan said it’s a unique opportunity to rethink how companies get things done and how to do it better. “The ways that we thought we needed to work to get the job done are not the case [and] there’s probably a lot more possibility than we thought,” he said.
“What we need to do is be really good at adapting and steering,” Dignan said. And to do that, team members need to be clear about the outcomes they’re aiming for. “That's how we win: Tacking toward our destination with the most effective steering possible.”
Once remote workers have the support they need to deliver exceptional work—whether that’s the ability to flex their schedule, a manager that they know has their back, or understanding the team’s objectives—tracking when and where they do that work becomes irrelevant.
Want to learn more? Listen to this episode of Back to Better, a series of conversations led by Upwork’s Tim Sanders and co-host Gene Gates, an independent professional on Upwork. It explores how companies are transforming and learning through the COVID-19 crisis to emerge stronger on the other side. For additional insights, download your copy of Leadership Response Strategies to Changing Workforce Patterns.