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I need to start this post by acknowledging how little expertise I have in this specific area.  I am, like most people, conflict-averse and acutely sensitive to personal difference and the individual needs of others.  I suppose that is what 5 years of working for the Government will get you.

When you are busy working 12 or 14 hour days, you don’t always have a lot of time for monitoring your staff; there is an inherent trust baked into the relationship.  When you like the person, it’s even harder to see the signs that they are letting you down. And yet, sometimes, a ‘vibe’ becomes too strong to ignore.

When you’re shoe-stringing your startup the last thing you need is wasted expenditure on wages.  I know there are many things I would rather spend that money on than idle time!  Tools like the oDesk time tracker help, but often they don’t give the whole story and can be quite easily gamed.

The only real way to ensure you get the most out of your staff is by hiring the right people and ensuring they have sufficient motivation to get the job done.  If you hire somebody with the mentality of shirking their duties it’s simply not going to work.  But what about when you have a good employee, whose productivity reduces over time?

This is a situation in which I have found myself recently.  For the first month, this particular person was hitting it out of the park – he was efficient, he had initiative, he was a quick learner and a solid communicator.  But recently we were noticing that the work rate had dropped, tasks were taking much longer to complete and his general reliability was not what is used to be.

This was not an overnight change; it was a pattern that developed over the course of a number of weeks.

I understand how difficult it is to remain motivated 100% of the time.  I get distracted, I have low-productivity days sometimes; that is simply human.  But when it develops into a pattern, it becomes a problem.  But I get paid based on the amount of effort I put into my business; contractors typically do not, but are instead paid by the hour.

When they are working remotely from home, this can compound the difficulty they may experience in getting motivated.

Obviously, the reason why we hire virtual staff is, fundamentally, to make our lives easier.  We try to hire motivated self-starters, who are going to save us energy, rather than use up our energy, but in my experience even the most committed VAs and freelancers will eventually flare out on repetitive tasks.

While it’s true that freelancers know the score- they’re there to work for the hours they’re paid – it’s also true that they are human.  So I’m trying to take some of the responsibility for motivating my staff, just like any manager would, and allocate tasks that are interesting and engaging (as well as intellectually stimulating) in addition to the everyday, more mundane tasks.

I’ve also borrowed from Chris Ducker in requesting that my main VA email me at the end of every day with a list of tasks achieved that day and the time spent on them.  This will help to reduce any uncertainty I have as to where the time is going.

It doesn’t take long for trust to turn to doubt and mistrust when you think a staff member may be ripping you off willingly.  It is something you have to nip in the bud before it becomes a problem – if not just for your productivity, for the relationship, because your partnership can very quickly become untenable if you aren’t sure if you can rely on your employee to do their job.  Once the trust is gone, it’s gone.

Often you won’t have any proof that something is amiss, but just your instincts that things should not be taking as long as they are.  This is the first sign of an erosion of trust and it must be dealt with head on if the arrangement is to continue for the long-haul.

So in my case, I had a conversation with my employee.  I laid out what I saw as the stumbling blocks to success – the indications that I viewed as evidence that I was getting less than 100% commitment to the job.  Naturally, this created some defensiveness and some of his explanations made sense, although some doubt remained in my mind.

The way I see it, it’s my job to set my expectations (in consultation with my staff) and to regularly check in to ensure they are being met.  Where a problem arises, whether it be due to workflow or performance, I am bound to intervene and try to find a solution.  As a last resort, we might consider parting ways.

But it’s also my job to identify and properly utilise my staff’s strengths and ensure they are stimulated at work.  If they aren’t engaged with what they’re doing, then I’ll never get 100% from them; it’s human nature.  And giving people both interesting work and a degree of autonomy is a powerful combination that will (usually) ensure you get the best out of them.  Occasionally people will take advantage of it, but overall you will have a more productive business.

In the end it all boils down to clear communication – of your expectations and goals, as well as your employee’s desires and aspirations.  If you can get that right, the rest will fall into place.  I am still fine-tuning my approach, but over time we will find our gr0ove and keep getting better.