Managing a Remote Team? Stop Counting Hours, Start Measuring Outcomes Instead

February 21, 2022
Stela Gineva

Managing a Remote Team? Stop Counting Hours, Start Measuring Outcomes Instead

February 21, 2022
Stela Gineva

In many organizations, managers still use time as a metric to measure productivity and success. Colleagues are expected to sit at their desk and perform tasks for forty hours a week on average. This deems them good employees that are performing up to expectations. But isn’t this an overly simplistic approach? 

The forty hour work week makes sense in some cases. And of course, when it first came about in the 1920s, it was deemed progressive. People in factories no longer had to do long, arduous hours with hardly any breaks. Prior to this, manufacturing workers clocked over 100 hours per week and were systemically overworked. Switching to a forty hour work week increased productivity and reduced ill health. 

And yes, workers who work on assembly lines benefit from a time-based productivity model where output can be measured based on units produced over a period of time. 

But does this translate to the work performed by knowledge workers? At a time when so many jobs can be done remotely, it’s more important than ever for managers to shift their focus from counting hours to measuring outcomes. 

Measuring outcomes means focusing on whether the work produced moves the business closer to achieving its goals. People’s output, i.e. the tasks they complete, contribute towards achieving business outcomes. Outputs can be tied to outcomes to ensure that assigned work moves the company’s goals forward.

In a remote setting, this makes sense. Employers can’t (and shouldn’t) monitor how many hours their employees spend at their laptop. Instead, they should check what outcomes they’re delivering. 

Less micromanagement, more trust, and an overall reduction in busywork are all facets of an outcome-based management style. But how do you go about shifting from keeping time to focusing on outcomes instead? 

Give your employees ownership over their work 

Your employees aren’t mindless cogs in a machine. They’re people with ideas, knowledge, and expertise. So assigning them tasks and telling them to get on with work is a wasted opportunity. Outcome-focused management gives you the option to involve your employees in designing tasks and linking them to business outcomes. 

Involving your employees in business planning is likely to result in more engaged team members who are willing to take ownership of their work to deliver against predetermined goals. Engaged employees are more willing to make decisions, take risks, and act in the best interest of the company. 

But how do you go about involving employees in this process? 

Determine your business goals together 

Identify what success means to your business. If you’re all working towards a common goal that everyone is crystal clear on, you’re empowering your staff to think outside the box and come up with ideas that are tied to achieving that success. 

Then, get together with your team to discuss how this success can be achieved. You could do this during a Zoom meeting, or even using asynchronous tools like Jamboards or Google Docs. This is particularly helpful if you have staff based in different time-zones and you want to include everyone in the discussion. 

Rather than asking your team how they’re going to achieve goals you’ve set, focus on setting goals together. What goals should you set as an organization to achieve success together?

This gets people involved from the outset and shows you respect and value your employees’ input and expertise. 

Have frank conversations 

Once you have identified what goals you want to focus on together, it is time to think about how these goals will be achieved. Input from your team members will be invaluable here. 

What you don’t want to do is set overly-ambitious tasks and watch your team scramble to achieve them and ultimately underdeliver. This will be demoralizing and will have the opposite effect of what you are trying to achieve. 

To ensure you’re setting realistic tasks, you need to have frank conversations with your team. You need to be asking questions like:

  • What is their capacity? What else have they committed to delivering already? 
  • Do they have the resources they need to do their work? 
  • Do they feel there are gaps in their knowledge and could they benefit from further training first? 

Set your team up for success by ensuring you have a clear understanding of what they need to get the job done. By setting goals together and ensuring your staff have everything they need to get the job done first, you’re allowing employees to take ownership of their work. 

They’ll be confident they understand what is required of them. And they’ll be confident they have the resources and time to commit to achieving these new goals, because they were involved in these conversations from the start. 

Once you’ve had these conversations, you will be able to set tangible goals including the work that needs to be delivered by each team member and the timeframe within which you expect to receive it. 

Abolish busywork 

Busywork goes hand in hand with counting hours and expecting employees to be at their desk in your open-plan office so you can observe them ‘in action’ all day long. Busywork keeps your employees busy but offers little to no value to your business. 

Toggl’s Partnerships Manager, Caitlyn Kari, distinguishes between inputs and outputs. She posits that office-work, is at its core, input driven. Things like checking emails, attending meetings, interacting with software, and even sitting at your desk are all inputs, representing the time you’re putting in each day.  

Sure, you may be interacting with office work and putting in the time required to do work-related activities, but if these activities do not contribute meaningfully to any tangible business goals, you’re likely engaging in busywork that has little value to anyone. 

Outcome-based management does away with the busywork. Employees are no longer rewarded for simply sitting at their desk. They have to produce result-driven work that makes an impact. 

This sounds scary at first as it places a lot more responsibility on the individual. But it is also a way for staff to find meaning in their work, drive impact, and evolve professionally. 

So how can an outcome-based management system abolish busywork? 

Tell your employees to ask themselves this one question

Outcome-first managers are razor focused on achieving results. But this same focus has to be instilled in employees as well. Otherwise, you risk having your staff revert to their old habits of doing work for the sake of work, or for the sake of looking ‘busy’. 

Experts suggest asking six questions when trying to identify whether something is busy work or results-focused work. They include things like whether the task is important to customers, whether it’s worth the extra time, whether anyone would notice if it isn’t done, and whether it’s a strategically important task. 

And while these are all good tests that can help give your employees clarity around what busywork entails, they are all underpinned by one key question: 

How does this work contribute to achieving our business goals? 

If employees can’t answer that, and if the work is unlikely to deliver any tangible progress, then it’s likely to be busywork that doesn’t need doing. 

Employees would be better off having a little break and refocusing afterwards, rather than expending energy on work that won’t produce results. 

Encourage your employees to say no

Employees should be ruthless with their time and the tasks they choose to complete to drive business goals forward. This means saying no to requests on occasions. 

Make sure your employees know it’s okay to decline requests that will likely eat up their time and energy for other initiatives they have committed to. Whether they’re asked to attend a meeting when another member of the team is already attending, or asked to complete a one-off task that will eat away at their priorities, they should feel empowered to say no. 

Politely saying no because your employees are already at capacity or have blocked off time to complete an important task shouldn’t be held against them. In fact, it’s part of encouraging them to take ownership of their work and deliver it in a way that works for them. 

They can’t take ownership of their work if they say yes to every request, so instil a culture of saying no and not taking a ‘no’ personally. 

Check work against goals 

If you worked with your colleagues to set realistic tasks tied to manageable deadlines, you should have a clear roadmap to follow when you measure outcomes. 

Not keeping time doesn’t mean you’re not setting any metrics. Not keeping time doesn’t mean you’re not managing your employees. It simply means you’re shifting to measuring outcomes and how the work produced by your employees delivers against business goals. 

Employees still have tasks they need to complete and deadlines. It’s up to them to organize their time to meet these. 

It’s up to you to check that the work delivered is up to the standard required and is delivered in a timely manner. 

If it isn’t, it’s up to you to give feedback and guidance around rectifying this. We have a great guide on providing prompt, actionable feedback to remote teams here

Stop micromanaging 

The beauty of not using time as a metric to measure success is that you no longer need to check in with your colleagues as often as you used to before. 

If you’re trying to encourage team members to take ownership of their work, let them get on with it! Don’t ask for status updates every hour. Don’t ask to see unfinished drafts. Don’t hound them with endless questions about every aspect of the work they’re currently doing. 

Trust that they will complete the work when they have said they will. Only check in if they haven’t delivered the work on time and if they haven’t said why. 

If it’s a long-term project they’re working on, consider setting up reporting systems that put the onus on the employee to provide a status report on a weekly basis. 

The employee can provide information on their progress with the project, what is still outstanding, what is being held up because they need external support, and whether they anticipate any delays. 

You can then follow up with additional questions or information if the progress report merits this. 

Tools like Google Docs, Google Sheets, Kanbanchi and Trello, all offer opportunities to set up easy reporting systems that are user friendly and trackable. 

Focusing on outcomes is about creating an engaged remote workforce 

By focusing on outcomes rather than time spent working, you’re creating an engaged workforce. Your team might be based all over the world, but if you have involved them in planning from the start and shown them you trust them to deliver quality work on time without watching their every step, you’re showing them they’re valuable members of the team. 
They are a lot more likely to take ownership of their work, think outside the box, tweak projects to improve them, and suggest other ideas for achieving the same goal. How much more valuable is it having an engaged employee that strives to create value versus one that is simply keeping time?

Let’s relegate time-keeping to the past and focus on outcomes instead. 

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