how can remote managers address problems they hear about secondhand?

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 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.


I originally published this at Intuit QuickBase’s blog.

{ 12 comments… read them below }

  1. Gene*

    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?”

    I can see this if the empowered person has been designated as Lead or something similar, otherwise it’s what Alison gets so many letters about, the “Meddling Coworker Who is Watching My Comings and Goings and It’s None Of Her Business”.

    1. Charityb*

      True. I agree that it’s important to designate someone who has that task to the whole team. It’s not really fair to give someone on a team — even a ‘lead’ — a “secret snitch” position because it creates the kind of friction where people who are ostensibly peers have to monitor each other as if they were supervisors. The ‘lead’ or senior person who gets stuck with this job should know what their responsibilities are and the whole team should be apprised as well so that the ‘delegated supervisor’ doesn’t get treated like some kind of busybody.

      1. RR*

        Exactly. We’ve done this with our remote offices. Each remote office has 1 or at most 2 staff members each from a number of different departments. We’ve designated the most senior staff as the officer in charge — it’s in their job description and was announced to all staff. And their officer in charge duties go beyond attendance checks (although that is indeed one clear duty, but only as needed, we do start from the assumption that we’re all professionals who can manage our time)– they also serve as support/representing all remote staff needs back to HQ.

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      Right, that’s what I meant by “empower” them, but I should have called it more explicitly.

      But I do also think it’s reasonable to have someone around who isn’t necessarily going to talk to people directly but knows to give you a heads-up if, for example, Fergus hasn’t worn pants this week. It’s not really being a secret snitch; it’s being part of the leadership of the organization, assuming the person is in a senior role.

  2. Transformer*

    This is really the first time I’ve heard about being checked out in meetings as a performance issue. I am now kind of wondering how big of an issue it is. In my role we have 32+ hours of meetings a week and it is impossible to get everything done if we don’t make some sort of professional judgement about how much and when to actively engage in meetings. What exactly would you be looking for? What would be inappropriate / a performance issue? I guess this raises some questions for me on normal professional interactions and meetings as I have only been employed by this company for my professional career and may be looking to move on soon.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      It depends very much on the type and purpose of the meeting. If it’s a four-person strategy meeting and your job means that you should be actively involved in the conversation, being checked out is a big deal. If it’s a 50-person meeting and your role isn’t much connected to what’s being discussed, it’s likely not an issue.

  3. So Timely*

    I wish our Corporate Office, located in another state, would follow this advice…”I know I might not have the whole story, so I wanted to ask you about what happened.” Instead, they will call and assume whatever they heard happened and act accordingly. No questions asked!!

    As far as checking out of meetings, in a meeting with 4 people, we have one person who will be off in their own world until their name is mentioned. Then, you need to repeat whatever you said and explain what you were talking about.

    Love my job……….

  4. Engineer Girl*

    I’d add one more – get specific details about the complaint. People use “coming in late” to mean anything from 8:30 – 11:30. “Checked out” could mean that they are quietly thinking, playing on their phone, doodling, or just sitting there. “Unprofessionally dressed could mean too-tight pants to sheer blouses to flip flops. It could also mean that someone is dressing in khakis and polo shirts. Forcing the complainer to give specifics helps you get an initial gauge on the situation and determine if it is really a problem.

  5. Remote Office Worker*

    I work on a remote team of 5, many states over from Head Office, and I’d suggest you don’t always take the second-hand comments as gospel. Our company’s CEO had an offhand comment from someone, which was completely inaccurate, and untrue. Rather than trying some attempts at answering the question himself (or through someone appointed here on site), he reacted very poorly. In the end the CEO essentially accused us of not working (hard enough), even though he sees our reports on a weekly/biweekly schedule and is always very happy with the output. It was a huge knock for morale on our team.

  6. Pictogram*

    The only thing I would add is to focus on being a good virtual manager first, then worry about addressing the little things that are hearsay if it continues to be a problem.

    I was once in a situation where I was the only remote employee and I was definitely treated differently than the rest of my team. I was frequently left off of important meetings, including those my manager would set up. When I expressed concern about being left off of important communications, I was told that I needed to “do better” at staying in the loop. I was also told I needed to send less emails and not expect people to always have the time to return my phone calls. I missed out on a wonderful training opportunity (my supervisor spent thousands on leadership training for the employees on site and then said she “couldn’t afford” to fly me down there to take advantage). To top it all off, I frequently had to work more independently than my other team members since they could just pop into each others cubicles yet my emails and pings would go unanswered if I needed help with something.

    So yeah. When I was dealing with all of that, I was none to pleased to get a phone call at 8:10 asking “Is it true that you didn’t arrive until 8:05?”

Comments are closed.