“I do my best work when micromanaged,” said no employee ever.
Managers typically do not set out to micromanage, but it is easy for those who supervise virtual employees and teams to micromanage on accident. Without observing the day-to-day work behavior of others, some managers and supervisors will resort to overmanaging the daily responsibilities of their direct reports.
To manage more effectively in a virtual environment, follow these five steps.
1. Provide more structure than you think they need.
As a leader of a virtual team, you’ll need to take a more structured approach than if you were managing that same team in a collocated environment. To provide that additional structure you can be proactive in explaining what success looks like at each step of the project team members are working toward. Use technology tools to make sure team members know who is responsible for what and when it is expected to be done, as well as highlighting the interdependencies among team members. When this structure is communicated directly and upfront, it is far less likely to be perceived as micromanagement.
2. Lead the person, supervise the work.
As you set expectations and provide more structure than you think you need to, be cognizant of the possibly of micromanagement creeping in.
Managing virtually is best done when leadership and management are clearly thought of as separate activities. Lead the employee. Supervise their work.
That may sound simple, but it is not always easy to implement.
What does it mean?
Leading the employee is about imparting values, communicating vision and direction and telling the story of the team (discussed in Four Steps to Creating Community in Virtual Teams). Supervising the work, on the other hand, is about setting clear expectations on process, outcomes and timelines. Each employee may have different needs in terms of how much supervision they need. Be aware of those needs. Ask about them if you need to so that you can avoid micromanagement.
3. Create a supportive work environment.
Create a supportive work environment for your virtual team members by being available, having an established rhythm and encouraging informal interactions.
When your team members know they can reach you for a quick question, they will feel more supported and less “out of the loop,” a common complaint of virtual employees. And, when there is a rhythm to their week which includes regular one-one-one meetings with you, regular team meetings or status updates, they will be less likely feel “lost” in the organization. Further, find opportunities to engage in informal interactions with virtual employees to approximate the connection that develops with collocated employees when you visit informally in the hallways or when getting coffee. These interactions create social cohesion between you and your employees and also model that it is okay – beneficial even – for them to have social interactions with one another.
4. Provide more feedback.
Employees who work virtually need more feedback. They don’t get the quick look of approval from you that may transpire in a face-to-face meeting or the questioning non-verbal reaction of your knit brow when you don’t understand something. When they do good work, especially that which is above and beyond your expectations, be generous in your praise. And, if they are new to their role, be clear and specific as they learn the ropes, again being generous when they fulfill on their expectations and being quick to provide constructive feedback if they are not fulfilling on the expectations of their tasks or their role.
5. Clarify expectations; track commitments and progress.
During regular one-on-one meetings and team status meetings, clarify expectations. Do your virtual team employees know exactly what they need to do and by when? Do they understand how their work is interrelated with that of other team members? Set those expectations clearly and explicitly.
Use tools for team members to track their commitments and their progress on those commitments. With smart use of technology, you can take a backseat to always knowing where each virtual team member is in relation to their work responsibilities. Insist that the tools be used and explain if necessary, that this is a tool that helps you from micromanaging them.
With these five steps in practice, you will keep yourself out of the micromanagement trap with your virtual employees. They will respect you more for it and their true value to the organization will have the best chance to shine brightly.