How Do You Know Your Remote Workers Are Working?

Unless you’re already at a fully remote company like Articulate/Rise, the coronavirus has likely disrupted work as you know it, whether you like it or not. (If you need help figuring out how to go remote, check out my article on how to spin up remote work quickly.) With the CDC advising against gatherings larger than 10 people and urging people to avoid close contact (closer than 6 feet) and states starting to order people to stay put, it’s time to send your people home. It’s the ethical, responsible, people-centric thing to do.

Today might be the first day that you’re figuring out how to manage a remote team. And your team is likely juggling kids or parents at home, making sure they’re stocked with emergency supplies, and managing their own stress around it all. So, it’s important to be flexible, transparent, and empathetic as you navigate these new waters.

The good news is that you really can build a productive remote team where everyone wins. And if you’re a leader who wonders how you’ll know people are working, you’re not alone. When I tell people I run a fully remote company with hundreds of employees and no office whatsoever, they are usually either incredulous or jubilant. The jubilant folks ask me if we have any job openings. The incredulous folks ask me how the heck we do it. One of the most common questions is, “How do you know people are working??!!”

The truth is, if you listen closely to people talk about work, most will tell you that they LOVE it when they have an occasional day working from home. Not because they can do laundry (though it’s a nice bonus) but because they get so much more work done. People aren’t stopping by their desk willy-nilly, their office mate isn’t crunching loudly on potato chips, and the arctic AC isn’t freezing them out. In short, they’re in an environment of their making, primed for productivity. (If you need strategies for staying productive while your kids are learning from home, check out these tips.)

But don’t worry, you don’t have to close your eyes and just hope for the best.

Whatever you do, DO NOT DO THIS:

From, “The New Normal of Working From Home: Instant Responses, All-Day Video Chats” on TheInformation.com, 3/19/20.

It’s creepy, invasive, disrespectful, and ridiculously ineffective. You don’t know people are producing work just because they are sitting in their chairs. And let me say again: it’s creepy, invasive, and disrespectful. Let’s be good humans and not do this, okay?

So, back to what IS effective and empowering. You can help your remote team be their most productive, happy, and empowered by following (with intentionality and consistency) these simple steps:

1. Decide and communicate priorities

Before people can do work, they need to know what to work on. As a leader, it’s your job to make sure everyone on your team understands what they need to focus on right now. Not next month or even next week. Right now. That’s not to say you shouldn’t make plans (of course you should). It’s that your people should always know what they’re supposed to work on in the present moment.

There are many ways to set priorities remotely. Across our Articulate and Rise businesses, teams typically meet weekly on Zoom video conferences to screen share and prioritize GitHub or Trello project boards listing specific tasks and deliverables. If your team doesn’t already use an online collaboration tool to organize and prioritize collective work, invest in one. It’s tough to get everyone on the same page about priorities if you can’t visualize, assign, and reorder work in one place. You need a single source of truth. Our GitHub and Trello boards are ours, but there are many online apps available that can serve the same purpose.

2. Set expectations on collaboration, feedback, and approvals

Once folks know what they’re supposed to work on, they need to know how you expect them to get the work done. Are they tackling a project on their own, or do you expect them to collaborate with other people? Unless you’re explicit about your expectations, someone might gather a team of five for multiple rounds of ideation, when all you really wanted was one person’s quick thoughts. A good rule of thumb is to write down your expectations when you make your ask, whether it’s in Slack, Trello, GitHub, or another collaboration app.

It’s also critical to explicitly delineate who needs to give feedback and approve work — and how. Make sure everyone understands the process for moving work forward, and then document it online so everyone can access it. This can be as simple as writing down the review process in a pinned Slack note. For more complex projects and programs, we build the review process into our Trello and GitHub boards so we can do visual handoffs that include email notifications to team members when a review is required or complete.

3. Assign milestone dates, track progress, and get frequent updates
It’s easy to have confidence that people are getting S%^&*t done (we call it GSD around here) when you can see progress. In a remote environment, you must be intentional about making work visible. How you make work visible is less important than the fact of making work visible.

At Articulate, we haven’t always been great at this. For years, our remote team was small enough that people knew what everyone else was working on, and we had a sense of the overall progress on key projects. But as our business has become more complex and interdependent, we’ve had to improve our discipline around setting milestones, tracking progress, and updating people across teams and functions.

For our most recent large, complex projects, we’ve been using teamgantt online project scheduling software. It integrates with Trello and makes it easy to visualize relationships between projects, milestones, and dependencies, identify roadblocks, and stay on the same page on progress in real time.

4. Focus on results

One of the biggest mistakes you can make with your remote team is to micromanage the time people spend working. If you’re focused on how many hours someone works, you’re missing the point: It’s not about how they work. It’s about the work they produce.

What you should be focusing on is whether people are delivering the results you expect given their role, skills, and experience and whether they’re collaborating effectively with others. (If this sounds completely foreign, I recommend you read the book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It: The Results-Only Revolution.)

A good way to keep the focus on results is for teams to conduct standups. Daily, ideally. Weekly, at minimum. These should take no more than 15–30 minutes. Just enough time for each person to give a two-minute summary of what they’re working on, what blockers they’re facing, and when they’ll finish their current project or deliverable. Our teams typically conduct these on Zoom, but occasionally do them in team channels on Slack. Because the coronavirus has so many folks juggling schedules with their partners right now, we’re urging our folks to do as many asynchronous updates in Slack as possible to build more flexibility into their days.

5. Learn from your wins and losses

One of the greatest gifts you can give your team is a learning mindset. While we have superstars on our teams at Articulate and Rise, we are human. We don’t always get things right the first time around. What we do do is learn fast. During our daily standups, weekly meetings, and retrospectives (retros), we make a point to discuss both where we shined and where we stumbled. If you create an expectation that work is iterative, that you expect the team to try new things and then iterate, and that failure is an opportunity for insight and learning, then you’ll get honest reflection that leads to even better results the next time around.

Be intentional about inviting feedback and reflection on what went well and what didn’t. If you create space for people to share their insights in a safe way, everyone benefits. We do retros via Zoom at the end of big projects as a matter of course. The agendas are simple. We discuss what went well, what didn’t go well, what could we do better next time, what we should continue doing next time, and what we learned.

6. Foster strong community and team accountability

I love that remote work environments are perfect breeding grounds for building strong work relationships. That may seem counterintuitive, given that we don’t see each other in the flesh that often. But the truth is that you take a tremendous leap of faith in your coworkers when you work remotely. You have to trust by default that others are holding up their end of the bargain, even though you can’t see them. This trust builds solid personal connections on teams. It just plain feels good when you experience people delivering what you need to move your own work forward day in and out.

As a leader, it’s critical to foster and encourage these organic connections. Give teams the budget to do virtual pizza parties. Participate in non-work-related Slack channels to signal that yes, it’s not only acceptable but encouraged for folks to connect more deeply. We have Slack channels on everything, from books and pets to cooking and music. Create an expectation that “winning” at your company means “winning together” by recognizing team accomplishments over personal triumphs. One way we do this is by celebrating company wins in a Slack channel. After we launched our new all-in-one training system Rise last month, we held a two-hour celebration on Zoom.

When you have a strong sense of community on your teams, people will go the extra mile to help one another. They will also hold each other accountable to produce the best work they can.

If you’re still not convinced that it’s easy to know whether remote workers are working, I’ll ask you this: How do you know the people at your office are working now? Because you see them sitting in a chair? Because they seem to have a work application open on their computers? I’m willing to bet that by going remote and adopting the practices above, you’ll not only have more productive, happier, and healthier employees, but you’ll also know with more certainty than ever before that they’re working — and on the right things.

If you want more advice, watch the free recording of my webinar on How to Transition Your Team to Remote Work.

I’ve got many more helpful articles coming so follow me on Medium to learn how to create a high-performing remote workplace and to build a human-centric organization that’s a force for good in the world.

President of one of the first and largest fully remote companies in the U.S., Articulate/Rise.