What's more important: that people are working on exactly what you want them working on at that exact moment, or that important tasks and outputs are done on time so that team goals are met, and other people can get their work done as well?
When asked that way, the answer is probably obvious. Most good leaders are less concerned about the micro-details than the finished product. But if you actually ask companies and managers what their deepest, darkest concerns are, it's that they can't tell when people are working or not, and they might be slacking off or working on something that's unimportant.
That looks an awful lot like micro-managing, whether we admit it or not.
What happens is that, willingly or not, managers often worry more about accounting (what happens exactly when?) than accountability (do people say what they say they'll do and keep their commitments to the project and each other?).
This doesn't make us bad people, only human. In the absence of obvious evidence about what's actually happening, we tend to fill the gaps in our knowledge with what we imagine to be happening.
Past experience tells us paranoia is a way better strategy than wishful thinking, so we fill those gaps with what bad things might be happening, and we try to mitigate those things as best we can. It makes sense, but it's a sucker's game. Like trying to teach a cat to sing, it only results in failure and a ticked-off cat.
Here are some ways teams can hold members accountable without relying on accounting?
Make sure every team member knows what the deliverables are for everyone else. When we ask managers to assess their remote teams, one of the biggest surprises is that people are unaware of exactly what other people are working on. If you don't know what your teammates' priorities are, how can you trust they are the same as yours? As a manager, how much of your time is spent managing peoples' expectations of (and disappointment with) each other?
Make delivered work and expected quality your coaching points. One of the hallmarks of a good team (remote or otherwise) is that people do what they say will do. Let them know what you and their teammates expect and then help them get there. What they have to do is the important thing, how they get there should be left up to them as much as possible.
That doesn't mean you leave them to their own devices. People need to feel supported in their work. As a leader you should be scheduling one-on-ones with each team member, as well as giving them plenty of ways to communicate with one another.
"How's it going?" isn't coaching. When coaching people for accountable, open-ended questions that determine both attitude and capability are important. Rather than just asking "How's it going?" or "still on time, right?" (which will likely get you exactly the answer you want to hear and not really tell you a darned thing until it's too late), ask questions like "what else do you need to make that deadline?" or "who else can help you with this?"
Share wins with everyone, not just the individual involved. As we have said so many times in this column, people build trust based on proof that the people they work with care just as much, work just as hard, and are as good at their jobs as they are.
So make sure people see each other succeed. If they are not meeting expectations, sometimes not disappointing their peers is a more powerful inducement to performance than a disappointed project manager.
The thing about an accounting mind-set when it comes to remote teams is that it's not only annoying, it's actually impossible to do. Much better to focus on helping people be accountable to the team and each other.