Risk and trust: How to effectively manage a remote team

Putting faith in your team can make a huge difference to the outcome.

How much does a senior manager need to know about what their team is doing?

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If a football coach ran onto the pitch in the middle of a game, took the ball from a player and scored, the team – and crowd – would be incredulous, not to say angry. Yet, this is often what happens in workplaces when managers don’t trust their staff to do the job.

On the other hand, if the buck stops with the boss, and the stakes are too high to allow for anything to go wrong, how much should a manager monitor the work being done?

What are the crucial things managers need to know to ensure autonomy is successful?

Putting faith in your team can make a huge difference to the outcome, say social researchers Mark McCrindle and Ashley Fell. In their new book, Work Wellbeing, they note, “A lot of leaders encourage and equip, but without delegating and entrusting the process, tasks or opportunity to the team, people won’t grow. Leaders often don’t want to let go of things, because they feel they can do the task better themselves.”

This is a mistake that can lead to managers getting bogged down in micro-level detail and losing sight of the bigger picture.

Finding the middle ground between absolute autonomy and control and command is a challenge for a lot of managers, says Dr Tim Baker, managing director of WINNERS-at-WORK.

“There is always a risk about letting go [and trusting], but there is also a risk about not letting go, as employees will never develop their skills. The thing is to take prudent risk,” Baker says.

Looking for more on this topic? Teamwork and innovation expert Erica Dhawan is speaking on how to “Connect meaningfully in a virtual space” at Virtual Congress 2021. It’s happening soon on 20-22 October - find out more here.

How do you build trust?

“It’s very tricky,” admits Baker. “We all have different thresholds around trust, and we have to be honest with ourselves as managers and ask, ‘Am I conveying trust to my team, or am I demonstrating a lack of trust?’. Trust and risk go together. Every time you trust someone, you take a risk.”

Since the COVID-19 crisis, Baker says he has had a number of conversations with clients – including in accountancy and finance – where managers have said how pleasantly surprised they are at how employees working remotely are just getting on with work.

“Unless there is inherent risk, the least important information is how the team is getting results. If they are getting the work done, the how does not matter.” Catherine Bell, Positive Psychology Coach

“This indicates they didn’t have that level of trust in the first place, but the pandemic is changing that,” Baker says.

In his experience, managers want employees to show initiative, and employees want to be allowed to show initiative. Problems arise when managers don’t explain the context for a task, align priorities or explain why something has to be done. When an individual arrives at a roadblock and isn’t sure what to do, the manager has to jump in, and all the talk about responsibility and autonomy feels like a hoax. Baker even has a term for this phenomenon – “the initiative paradox”.

Share the vision

Catherine Bell, positive psychology coach and trainer, says it is vital a manager spends time at the start, educating everyone with a crystal-clear vision of what a project looks like, defining the parameters and giving good examples of things that the team should handle themselves and things they should escalate.

“Establish the touchpoints where you, as a manager, need to know what’s happening – what are the milestones? These are the ones you all work to. Unless there is inherent risk, the least important information is how the team is getting results. If they are getting the work done, the how does not matter,” Bell says.

For junior staff, or someone who hasn’t previously had a lot of autonomy, giving them an environment where they can make small decisions and graduate to larger ones will benefit everyone, says Bell.

To oversee work successfully, “a manager should ask themselves: ‘Are we both in regular contact, so that I and they feel comfortable? Have I provided ways to communicate that will assist them to make the best decisions possible?’,” Bell says.

At the heart of all this is the employment relationship and the notion that managers are supposed to do the thinking, while the employees are supposed to do the doing, Baker says. “That’s not relevant in the 21st century – both manager and employee should be able to do both.”

Baker believes the issue is not so much around techniques, but about the mindset that managers have about their role in the workplace. “Changing that mindset and changing that culture is far more difficult than teaching someone how to have check-ins and how to delegate.”

CPA Library resource: Virtual Team Success. Read now.

How can you ensure your remote team is working well?

Dr Tim Baker offers practical tips:

  • Manage outcomes, not processes.
  • It is all about communication. Make sure you are having regular conversations.
  • Be clear in your own mind about which areas you can entrust to the employee(s). Don’t make assumptions early on that so-and-so can’t do the tasks. If their skillset isn’t good, then ask yourself what you’re doing to build those skills.
  • Organise a check-in early each day, clarifying what needs to be done – and negotiating that, if necessary – and then agree that certain things will be achieved by close of play.
  • Give feedback promptly and clearly.

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