How Can Remote Managers Address Problems They Hear of Secondhand?

Businessman on a video or conference call on his tablet

When you’re a remote manager – or your team members are remote – there’s lots that you can do to mitigate the disadvantages of being in a different location than your team, like using technology to track projects and communicate. But one challenge is hard to overcome: when you hear about a problem but haven’t observed it yourself first-hand.

Some things are easy to observe first-hand, even when you’re remote: You see the code someone is writing, or the sales they generate, or the designs they create. But there’s a whole other category of things that you might simply hear about from someone else – such as if an employee is chronically late or regularly dressing inappropriately or continually looking disengaged at meetings. When you’re not in the same geographic location as the staff member and are just hearing reports of the problem secondhand, it can be tough to verify that it’s really a problem, let alone raise an issue that it’s obvious you haven’t witnessed yourself.

Normally, if you were in the same location and you heard secondhand reports of a problem, the best thing to do would be to find a way to observe the behavior yourself in order to determine whether there was really a problem. Then, if you agreed there was a problem, you could talk to the employee based on your own observations, rather than having to cite reports from someone else.

Remote managers may not be able to do that, but here’s what you can do:

  • If your context allows for it, deputize another senior staff member to be your eyes and ears. This won’t work if the remote staff member works all alone, but if your remote employees share an office with others, you might ask a senior employee in the same location to give you a discreet heads-up about issues you’re not there to see. Depending on the issue, you might also create a context where it would be appropriate for that person to speak to your team member directly. It’s not necessarily inappropriate for you to empower the person who’s on site to say to your employee, “I noticed you’ve been coming in at 11:00 pretty regularly. Does Jane know about your schedule?”
  • Think about whether there actually might be opportunities for you to observe the behavior yourself, or whether you can create that kind of opportunity. For example, if you’re hearing reports that a team member is checked out during team meetings, consider holding a meeting or two with video conferencing so that you can actually see people.
  • Create opportunities to interact in person at least a few times every year. This won’t always be the solution, but much of the time it will give you a window for first-hand observation.
  • Be willing to have an awkward conversation. Sometimes you may have no choice but to say something like, “This is awkward because I normally don’t like to rely on secondhand reports, but when we’re in separate locations, that doesn’t always work. I’ve heard that you might have lost your temper with a prospective client the other day. I know I might not have the whole story, so I wanted to ask you about what happened.” The key when doing this is not to assume that what you heard was true, or that you have the full story. Ask questions and go from there.

 

 

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  • Lisa

    Hi Alison,
    The last paragraph provides a good way to open the conversation. It would be helpful if you talked about what to do if the employee’s version is very different from the reports. It would be great if we could trust people to always tell the truth (“Why yes, I do come in every day at 11”) and we know that some, maybe many, will fudge the truth so they don’t get in trouble (“I only did that once because my car wouldn’t start”).

    P.S. Sometimes I wish you gave advice on things outside of business. 🙂 I’m facing this situation right now with a mom with health issues and a sister who lives by her, and they are 1500 miles away from me.

    • Sometimes simply having the conversation with the person will alert them that there’s accountability built in, even if you’re not on site, and will be enough to take care of the problem. But I think the bigger issue is that you’ve got to be able to trust the people who are working for you, especially if you or they are remote. If you find yourself not trusting that they’re telling you the truth, that’s a bigger problem and at that point I’d dig into why that is (i.e., are there other red flags you’ve sensed, etc.).