DISTRIBUTED: Do’s and Don’ts for Keeping Distributed Employees Happy

In our last blog, we pointed out the three most important traits for successful remote workers: self-motivation, autonomy and curiosity. We call these highly desirable employees SMAIPs (Self-Motivated, Autonomous, Inquisitive People).

So once you’ve built a killer distributed team of productive SMAIPs, you can just let them do their thing right? Not so fast. Even if you’ve populated your team with the most self-motivated, autonomous and inquisitive employees known to mankind, you have to consistently nurture these traits.

Here are five do’s and don’ts we at Intridea follow to keep our distributed employees motivated, engaged and happy:

1: Don’t Micromanage. Do Give Guidance.

Because SMAIPs require very little direction, they absolutely detest micromanagement. That’s why we try to foster self-directed behavior by giving our team members plenty of independence and elbow room to get the job done.

If you hover over your employees, get involved with every small task and nit-pick every detail, you’ll stifle their creativity and send their confidence into a tail spin. In fact, people who believe they are being watched perform at a lower level, according to a study in the Journal of Experimental Psychology. So, back off. The more you micromanage, the less productive your team will be.

When leaders expect remote employees to follow overly complicated processes, this can also crush self-motivation. After all, enforcing inflexible rules and procedures is really just another form of micromanagement. We’ve found that if employees have to jump through hoops to get something done, they’re less likely to try.

2: Don’t Play It Safe. Do Embrace Failure.

If you punish your team members for each and every failure, you’re going to end up with overly cautious employees who do the bare minimum. And who could blame them? They’d rather play it safe than face your dreadful wrath.

Far too many remote managers paralyze their teams with the fear of failure. Not only does this suffocate their inquisitive and self-driven behavior—it eventually transforms employees into brainless automatons.

At Intridea, we think it’s important to embrace failure and turn each botched attempt into an important lesson. In his book, Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, economic journalist Tim Harford writes, “Biologists have a word for the way in which solutions emerge from failure: evolution.” Harford says we need to learn to accept failure and constantly adapt, which involves lots of improvising. “Success comes through rapidly fixing our mistakes rather than getting things right first time.”

In fact, some research shows that failure is often the quickest path to success. People and organizations that disastrously miss their goals perform much better in the long-run, according to a University of Colorado Denver Business School study.

“We found that the knowledge gained from success was often fleeting while knowledge from failure stuck around for years,” Professor Vinit Desai, the leader of the study, wrote in the Academy of Management Journal. “Organizational leaders should neither ignore failures nor stigmatize those involved with them. Rather leaders should treat failures as invaluable learning opportunities, encouraging the open sharing of information about them.”

3: Don’t Overburden Them. Do Enforce Work-Life Balance.

SMAIPs are often prodigious in their output—which can be both a blessing and a curse. While leaders may be tempted to let highly driven team members pull long hours and work their fingers to the bone, this will quickly lead to employee burnout.

As we mentioned in a previous blog, it’s important to ensure your employees achieve a healthy balance between their work life and personal life. In the long run, work-life balance leads to happier, more productive employees.

“The business climate has become so fiery and competitive that leaders are focused on competition and getting the most out of their people,” John Izzo, author of Values-Shift: The New Work Ethic and What It Means for Business, told CNNMoney. “Everyone’s working to their max.” This extreme pressure will quickly derail even your most productive and driven SMAIPs.

Izzo warns that an employee suffering from burnout becomes part of the “working wounded.” Because they’ve lost all of their motivation, they apathetically limp along through their work day. “Ultimately the biggest price companies pay for burnout is a loss of talented people,” he adds.

Because we realize SMAIPs will create Intridea’s most innovative work, we make a point to nurture these employees—not work them to death.

4: Don’t Dishearten Them. Do Give Positive Feedback.

Distributed leaders have to be careful about demoralizing SMAIPs with too much negative feedback. If you only offer a worker feedback when he does something wrong, you’ll quickly crush that employee’s spirit and deflate his motivation.

It’s important to give distributed employees positive feedback, even for normal day-to-day work. When you reward your team members for a job well-done, this will encourage further self-driven behavior. It also ensures they’ll sit up and listen in the instances when you need to offer them negative feedback.

Warren Greshes, author of The Best Damn Management Book Ever has also emphasized the importance of positive feedback. “If you want to point out the mistakes people make, get them to listen to you and fix those mistakes, you better be ready to recognize them when they do something right,” he writes. “Employee recognition is one of the greatest drivers of employee motivation in the workplace. Do you know anyone who doesn’t like to be recognized when they’ve done something right or achieved something special?”

If you only speak up when an employee has done something wrong, they won’t bother to take risks that could turn into big wins for the company. In the end, your employees will stop caring because they know no matter what they do, you’re going to criticize them.

5: Don’t Dismiss Their Ideas. Do Set Expectations.

SMAIPs often formulate groundbreaking ideas, and they’re usually bursting with excitement to share these ideas with their manager. So when a self-motivated employee comes to you with her latest brain child, it’s important to give the idea the thought and consideration it deserves.

If you ignore or constantly shoot down an employee’s ideas, she’ll more than likely stop sharing altogether. In fact, more than a third of U.S. workers don’t speak up for fear of retribution, according to a DecisionWise Benchmark study. “These perceptions typically stem from a culture that stifles the free expression of ideas, and from leaders who contribute to or create that culture,” points out Paul Warner, Director of Consulting Services at DecisionWise. “Fear of speaking up is extremely detrimental to organizations, often causing an escalation of dissatisfaction among employees leading to absenteeism, non-productive work behaviors, low team identification, and eventually reduced performance and turnover.”

We’ve found that while it’s critical to listen to our team members’ new ideas, it also helps to set expectations upfront—even before the employee’s idea is hatched. For example, we encourage our team members to use a program called sparktime—an Intridea initiative to encourage side projects and exploration. When one of our employees submits an idea for a side project, our “approval” is contingent on a well-defined plan as well as good timing with other projects. This helps focus our employees and also teaches them how to set themselves up for success.

Check out our next to blog to learn how to spark self-motivation in distributed employees.