Focus on outcomes for remote work success

camera surveillance

February 5, 2021 by Jason Yavorska, photo by Lianhao Qu

A lot of companies that are adapting to remote work are struggling with an important topic: how can you tell if someone is engaged and delivering what you expect them to when you can’t see them? There can be a temptation with remote work to grab on tightly and monitor secondary measurements even more closely: how many hours someone is logged in, how many lines of code they wrote, or maybe even meetings attended.

Microsoft is introducing an Orwellian-sounding productivity score to give administrators a view into how much people perform various expected kinds of behaviors on a given day, none of which are really related to providing any value, but which presumably ensure someone is sitting in their chair as expected. Disturbingly, you can get a real sense of their vision for the future of work by watching their Black Mirror-esque introduction video for Viva. We can do a lot better than this.

There’s a better way

If you want to avoid a dystopian future of work that involves companies installing surveillance software in their employees homes and having AI bots determine who is creating the most value, what can you do? It’s actually pretty simple, and there are three key pillars that will get you there:

  1. Deeply understand the value your team member provides
  2. Communicate your expectations clearly
  3. Measure performance against these expectations

Fortunately, these are things most good managers do anyway. They do require a high level of engagement and proactive, open communication, but measuring time spent in seats by a team never really worked anyway, and it definitely wasn’t an inspiring form of leadership.

Understanding value

There’s an old-fashioned view of management that sees teams (and the people in them) something like machines that are able to run for a certain number of hours per day, and as a result, generate a fixed number of units of value per day. If you can somehow convince people to sit at their seats for a little longer, then you can get them to manufacture more value, and it’s a pure win for the employer.

The reality of skilled work is that it involves creativity, time for reflection, messy collaboration, and periods of focus. These happen organically at different times of day, come in phases, and, unlike the hypothetical cogs in the wheel producing value, are unpredictable on a day-to-day basis. This is too messy to measure in any simple way, and that’s why your mission as a manager needs to be to deeply understand the reason you originally hired this person, and what the value you need from them is. If the best you can come up with to describe someone’s role is that they vaguely increase the overall throughput of the team, then this is a flashing red sign that it’s time to take a deeper look.

For managers and software that are focused on measuring hours people are spending in their chair, you can tell this was where the analysis stopped. This is, however, just the beginning - only with a deep understanding of what you expect someone to deliver can you have the basis for how to measure their success or failure.

Communicating clearly

Once you understand what your team member should deliver, in very specific terms, you’re already ahead of the game compared to a surprising amount of companies out there. The next step is ensuring that this baseline you’ve established is something that you discuss and iterate on together regularly. The key here is to make sure that there is a clear job description in place, which should already exist if you’re doing the above, and that it is discussed and updated regularly openly with your team member. Things change over time and the value a person contributed on day one may be quite different in a year, or even before then, and nobody knows the work better than they do; you should own the clarity of what success looks like together.

Your one-on-one is also your opportunity to coach your team member on how to improve. You’ll find that the combination of shared understanding of the goals, good ongoing communication, and transparency provide an amazing framework in which to mentor someone. Everything is actionable, and you always have real examples, good or bad, to illustrate the lesson with. The difference between a coaching session with this context and without is truly night and day.

Measuring outcomes

Once you understand the person’s role, the specific value they add to the team, and have been having constant communication around how their role is evolving and how they are doing, then you’re in a great position to measure their outcomes against expectation directly. You don’t need secondary measures like time in chair, because you have built a relationship on trust, clarity, and mutual understanding, and you know what they were meant to do and why it matters.

There really isn’t anything else magical about this step because it is the natural outcome of doing the first two well. Is it time to assess someone’s performance as part of a review process? Great! Simply open up their job description, open up your 1:1 agenda notes, and check what the gaps are against your expectations. Everything you need is already done, and there aren’t any surprises in store for anyone when the review is delivered.

Once you’ve reached this point congratulations are in order - you and your team are doing a great job having the right conversations and focusing on results together. There’s no need to install any surveillance software. It doesn’t bring any benefit at all, it would be harmful to trust, and it demonstrably wouldn’t measure the right things anyway.

Closing thoughts

In the end, there’s just no way to effectively manage someone that you don’t trust to do the job they are meant to do, especially if you don’t really understand exactly what they are meant to be doing anyway. Someone who is checked out will sit at their laptop staring at their screen if you force them to, but this doesn’t produce anything of value either.

By following the guidance in this article you’ll be in a much better place to understand and communicate what the goal is, to build up the trust you need to work as a team, and to simply be a better leader that knows how to effectively drive accountability in a much more human way.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic, including where you agree or disagree. You can always reach me on Twitter at @j4yav.

Person working remotely

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