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.