The Big Myth about Remote Workers and Accountability

(This article is the second in a series of posts about the challenges of leading a remote workforce.)

In a previous post, I pointed out that many leaders, in the wake of new staffing circumstances brought about by the response to the global pandemic, are now asking variations on this question: How do I hold my people accountable when they are not working in the office?

In this post, I want to issue a pointed challenge to leaders in all industries to stop asking that question…and to start asking three better, more productive questions, questions that will actually lead to improvements in efficiency and productivity from remote workers. The simple reason we must stop asking ourselves this “How do I hold my people accountable” question is that it is based on a myth, an urban legend, a fantasy — namely that we can hold people accountable. It does not work. As I mentioned in the previous article, as leaders, we do not mandate organizational accountability. We only create it through the power of our own example. Accountability can never be mandated. It can only be inspired.

“Holding our people accountable” for anything is among the best ways to alienate them, no matter where they happen to be when they are working for our organization. This misguided approach to accountability inevitably reduces trust and degrades team cohesion…because employees believe (with plenty of evidence) that “being held accountable” translates as “being targeted by management.” Here, then, are three important questions for leaders who, in coming to grips with the new work realities, are willing to move beyond familiar, but fruitless, efforts to “hold remote team members accountable.”

Question #1: What do I believe? I am not talking about our level of belief in things like the Easter Bunny or the Loch Ness Monster. I am talking about our personal default settings when it comes to what we tell ourselves about our team. What point do we start from? What core belief guides our interactions with those who report to us–both those who are working on site and those who are working remotely? If we don’t know, it is important to take some time and figure this out. If our belief system bears any resemblance to “Give people an inch and they’ll take a mile,” we will have a very hard time indeed creating an effective remote management strategy. On the other hand, if our belief system incorporates a principle like, “People are capable of amazing contributions when they feel supported and they are given the tools they need,” we will be setting ourselves and our team up for success. Note that the two examples I’ve just shared are contradictory. When it comes to leading a team, and especially to leading a remote team, we must choose one or the other! And by the way: If we do not trust a team member to do the job when we are not around, and we are looking for someone to blame about that, we can consult the nearest mirror. We hired that person!

What am I focusing on? Is there a recent mistake, disagreement, or error that we find ourselves mentally replaying over and over again, something we cannot seem to stop calculating the cost of? If so, we are focusing on lack, scarcity, and things we cannot control. Is there a team goal that inspires us, and inspires the team, a goal that gets us up early in the morning and keeps us going late at night? If so, we are focusing on possibility, abundance and things we can control. We need to put the first kind of focus out of our minds, and avoid passing it along to the team members who report to us, regardless of whether they are working in the office next to ours, at home, or at the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, because unproductive focus is contagious. We need to share the second kind of focus, on abundance, possibility, and things we can control, with remote team members (and all team members) at every opportunity. Possibility and abundance focus is contagious, too!

What am I committed to? No matter where employees happen to be doing their job, they need to see tangible evidence — meaning action, not words — of our commitments as a leader. They need to feel certainty that we are personally committed to the truth, to our stated values (whatever those happen to be), to the principle of “It’s All of Us,” to stand with them when all hell breaks loose, to accept the faults and failures as well as the opportunities and successes, to sound financial principles, to helping them to achieve their full potential, to having a safe space in which to work, to our word being your bond, and to the good reputation of the company. If we give them unmistakable evidence of all of that, on a consistent basis, we will see them doing anything and everything they can to meet — or exceed — their commitments to us. Isn’t that what we really want? And isn’t the extra effort it may take to make sure those commitments are felt by remote workers a good investment? One leader recently told me that he makes a habit of letting home-workers know when he will be driving by and checking in with them in person, both to make sure they are okay and also to confirm that they have everything they need. He keeps appropriate social distance: he and the employee chat pleasantly for a few moments as he stands in the driveway and the employee stands in the doorway of their home! What a great way to let team members know you are committed to supporting them and helping them to achieve and perform at the highest level.

To lead remote workers effectively — to lead any workers effectively — we must accept that the imperative to make accountability a reality in our team and in our organization starts with us. The three questions I have shared with you are, I believe, the very best place for accountable leaders to begin as they approach the task of managing remote workers.

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