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Instilling Ownership and Accountability in a Virtual Environment

Instilling Ownership and Accountability in a Virtual Environment

Working from home can have its perks—no commute, more family time, and less distractions. But it can also be challenging to lead a team that you don’t see in the office every day. Several leaders have expressed frustration that some team members aren’t as responsive, or they lack follow through since they have been working from home. The lack of personal interaction can make it more challenging to check-in with team members who aren’t pulling their weight.

So how do you instill a sense of ownership and accountability in a virtual environment?

1. Establish goals and outcomes.

Although there may be less distractions when employees are working from home, it also can be challenging to focus. As a leader, it is important to set clear goals, outcomes, and deadlines for projects and tasks so that each of your team members know exactly what your expectations are. Focusing on outcomes allows an employee to take ownership of a task or project, and alleviates you from having to micromanage the process. When creating an outcome, think about what the end result would look like and communicate that to the employee. At the beginning of the week, communicate exactly what you are expecting for each employee to complete, the deadline for completion, and how they should submit their work.

2. Create Structures.

This is not the time for a completely hands-off approach. As a leader, it is important to create structures that will support the achievement of tasks to move projects forward. You want the right balance between giving your team members some freedom to come up with their own solutions and manage their own time, while providing guidance and support when needed. For employees who are self-starters and manage their time well, a weekly check-in may be sufficient for communicating progress. For employees who need more direction or guidance, a daily call may be necessary. Another structure could be weekly “office hours” you make available for employees to schedule time with you to ask questions or get support.

3. Adjust your leadership style.

You may have one team member who only needs a clear goal and can work independently and autonomously. Another employee may need more specific direction and instructions. It’s important to know the working style of each of your employees, and how you can support them best. Daily check-ins may make one employee feel micromanaged, yet may be necessary to keep another employee on track. Don’t frustrate your employees who are naturally accountable and take initiative by micromanaging their daily work. Create structures that work to support how your employee works best. A good practice is to ask each employee in your next one-on-one call. Here are some examples of what you might ask:

      • How is this check-in structure working for you? Would you prefer to meet more often? Less often?
      • After working virtually the past two months, what have you noticed works best for you to accomplish your tasks?
      • Is there anything you would change about how we are communicating?

If you notice a drop in production or missed deadlines, use your next one-on-one call to coach the employee. Don’t avoid the discussion, approach the employee in a non-confrontational way so you can support him to get back on track.

Examples of questions might be:

      • “I’ve noticed the past two weeks that you have missed three deadlines. What can you do differently going forward to ensure you are meeting your deadlines?”
      • “What got it the way of finishing the project?”
      • “What will you do to make sure this is completed today?”

4. Institute collaboration software.

Collaboration software such as MS Teams or Asana can help to manage projects and deadlines, particularly if you have multiple employees working on a project,. I know several virtual teams that use collaboration software on a regular basis to track projects. Having a public forum like a software program to list who owns a task and important deadlines can provide the necessary peer accountability for an employee to take action.

It does take some effort to keep projects and tasks on track. As a leader, your job is to facilitate the best performance from your employees by adjusting your leadership style to coach them through challenges and obstacles, and supporting them to meet objectives.

Instilling Accountability in Your Team

I believe most employees want to do a good job. They want clarity on how to be successful and what is expected so they can deliver results. Yet many leaders don’t communicate in a way that brings out the best performance in their employees. There are often little things we do and don’t do as leaders that get in the way of effective communication and results.

In many organizations, accountability has a negative connotation. Many leaders look outside themselves for the problem, and focus on blaming when things go wrong. These managers talk about “holding people accountable” and implement disciplinary action to force improvements. This approach often fails because it leaves the employee feeling disengaged and unmotivated.

Accountability is really about taking responsibility for your actions. You can’t control someone else. But you can control your choices and behaviors.

This is my favorite definition of accountability, from Roger Conners and Tom Smith:

“A personal choice to rise above one’s circumstances and demonstrate the ownership necessary
for achieving desired results – to see it, own it, solve it, and do it.”

Accountability is an attitude. It is one of the most important characteristics of success. It is a very powerful tool that can create more success in life and work.

One of the most important ways we can instill accountability on our teams is to model it ourselves.

People don’t follow what you say, they follow what you do.

The small things we do every day can either create trust and strengthen relationships, or chip away at trust and damage relationships. The trust you build can strengthen your integrity and credibility, or lack of trust can damage your integrity and credibility.

Accountability looks like…

  • Follow through
  • Doing what you say you are going to do
  • Showing up on time
  • Asking for help
  • Doing something even if it’s not your job
  • Asking for Clarity

Every interaction you have with another person impacts the relationship in either a positive or negative way. When you have positive experiences (do what you say, show up on time, follow through), you create a positive connection. When you have negative experiences (don’t follow through, show up late), you create a negative connection. These interactions impact the relationship, as well as the team.

Another way leaders can instill accountability is to create clarity for employees. This means using language that is specific and clear rather than vague and confusing.

In organizations, we use vague and weak language every day. Words and phrases like “ASAP”, “soon”, “right away”, and “should” get in the way of clarity and results. To get better results in life and in your work, you need to use positive and specific language.

When communicating specific tasks or projects, make sure you are communicating all the information necessary for employees to be successful. Most leaders focus on what needs to be done and neglect to communicate why it needs to be done and by when it needs to be done.

Why    →     What     →     When
Why you need it
What you need
When you need it by


If you want your team to produce better results, reflect on how you are communicating. Shifting to clear and specific language, and modeling ownership and accountability yourself will promote a positive sense of ownership and accountability in your team.