Delegating in a Virtual World

Posted on May 13, 2020


Getting things done through others has long been thought to be the primary goal and challenge of leadership. However, the more we learn about people and performance, the more we understand that there is another factor leaders must be concerned with: employee engagement. Ensuring that employees enjoy their work and that they are developing and utilizing their strengths has been shown to dramatically improve performance and output.

A manager who has a singular focus on results will eventually end up hurting results. Those in leadership positions who prioritize results over employee engagement are like the foolish man in the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs: they kill the very thing that will bring them long term results.

The goal of leadership, therefore, is to inspire positive action in others to achieve desired results. That’s it. True leaders have a positive impact on both people and results.

Effective delegation is the key to accomplish both.

“Leaders inspire positive action in others to achieve desired results.”

Delegation in our New Reality

Today as the world adjusts to manage COVID-19, more people are working remotely than ever before. Pre-COVID research has provided convincing evidence that working from home has many benefits.  One study showed that telecommuting employees are substantially more productive, had 50% less attrition, had fewer sick days, and took less time off than their office-working colleagues. Telecommuting employees save on gas, commute time, parking, and other transportation costs.  Meanwhile, employers save on office space and pay less rent and utilities. However, the same research shows that employees who work from home 100% of the time felt too isolated.

Recent research out of Harvard has confirmed this finding and found that being forced to work from home is hurting employee motivation and performance. This shouldn’t come as a surprise since people don’t like to be forced to do just about anything and we’re all currently suffering from a lack of social contact.

However, I suspect that there is another, less obvious reason that many people are having a tough time working remotely: the distance is exacerbating their manager’s poor delegation habits.

Fortunately, the fundamentals of effective delegation remain unchanged whether the person you are delegating to is in the next office or on the other side of the globe. The way managers delegate work has a tremendous impact on employee’s motivation to accomplish the task, and determines whether or not the desired results will be achieved.

The following Five Steps of Effective Delegation work just as well over video conference as they do in-person.



     Define the Desired Results

Step 1 of effective delegation is to define the desired results and let the delegate choose the methods to achieve those results. Unless there are certain protocols that must be followed for safety or compliance reasons, managers who prescribe how employees ought to do their work squash employee engagement and initiative. In contrast, people who are given the opportunity to use their brains to solve problems often come up with better ways of achieving the desired result than the manager had considered.

When delegating an assignment, managers must communicate four key aspects of the desired results:

  • What. What needs to be accomplished?
  • When. By when must the results be achieved?
  • Standards. What quality standards must be met?
  • Impact. What will be the impact of accomplishing the desired result? What will be the impact of not accomplishing the desired result?

The last item, impact, is critical to getting the right result. Employees who know why the assignment is important and why they have been given this assignment will be more motivated to accomplish it and will have the context required to make good decisions.


     Provide Resources

As the saying goes, “Nothing is impossible for the person who doesn’t have to do it themselves.” Managers who ask for something that hasn’t been done before must be willing to provide resources they haven’t provided before. If they don’t, they’re setting their delegate up for failure.

Providing resources isn’t simply allocating sufficient time and money to accomplish the task; it also involves anticipating roadblocks and clearing obstacles. This includes providing examples and templates, and identifying common pitfalls.

  • Examples. What are some examples of what the manager is looking for, as well as examples of what the manager doesn’t want?
  • Tools & Templates. Are there any tools and templates that could help? If not, should one be created?
  • Information Sources. Where might the employee look, and whom might they contact, for pertinent information?
  • Budget. How much budget has been allocated to accomplish this task?



    Clarify Authorization

The cardinal sin of delegation is to give an assignment without clarifying the delegate’s decision-making authority. Doing so leaves the door open for delegates to make decisions they shouldn’t. And these decisions can result in serious damage to the organization and to the delegate’s self-confidence.

On the flip side, without clarification, some employees might assume they aren’t allowed to make any decisions. This kills their initiative and stalls the process as employees keep coming back to their manager to make decisions that they are fully capable of making themselves.

Effective managers clarify the delegate’s authorization by addressing these questions:

  • Go Ahead. What type of decisions can the delegate make on their own?
  • Discuss First. What types of decisions must the delegate first discuss with their manager?
  • Spending Limit. What is their discretionary spending limit?



     Establish a Reporting Schedule

How many times have you asked someone to do something for you, then left them to do it, then returned to find they totally missed the mark? This is the most common problem in delegation, and it is totally avoidable.

Establishing a regular one-on-one meeting schedule is the most critical aspect of effective delegation. Reviewing progress more frequently reduces the chances of a delegate getting too far off track. What’s more, research has shown that people who regularly report their progress are 95% more likely to achieve their goals.

“People who regularly report their progress are 95% more likely to achieve their goals.”

Regular one-on-one check-in meetings are different than team meetings or the random touch-points managers and employees have with each other throughout the week. Team meetings and unscheduled touch-points are important, but they usually focus on tactical issues and don’t provide an appropriate setting to discuss sensitive issues that can make or break achieving the goal.

Every employee deserves dedicated one-on-one time with their manager to discuss their progress on assignments and any other issues that may impact their work performance.

Managers should consider the following when establishing a regular reporting schedule:

  • Regularity. What day and time of the week will we both typically be available for a call or video conference?
  • Frequency. Should we meet more often than once a week at the beginning of new assignments?
  • Agenda. What are the most important things we should discuss when we meet?  (Click HERE for a FREE white paper that includes meeting agenda topics)



     Conduct an Assessment

In your working life, have you ever carried out an assignment that you felt quite good about, but then never heard back from the person who gave you the assignment? Perhaps the radio silence means the assignment wasn’t that important after all. Or maybe the person who gave you the assignment was so disappointed with the result that they couldn’t even talk to you about it. Who knows?

Human beings need closure. We want our effort to be acknowledged. And more importantly, most of us want to learn from our mistakes so we can improve. Effective delegation ends with assessing how closely the actual results match the desired results set out at the beginning of the assignment, and extracting lessons learned.

An effective assessment answers the following four questions:

  • Good. What went particularly well?
  • More. What can we do to make sure these things continue to happen on future assignments?
  • Bad. What didn’t go well?
  • Less. What can we do to make sure these things don’t happen again?

Click HERE to receive a FREE Delegation Checklist

Remote Worker Considerations

Once managers have the fundamentals of effective delegation nailed down, they should consider the following while managing remote workers:

  • Technology Enhancers. Are you using task tracking software such as Trello to stay in sync, or using Google Docs to collaborate on documents?
  • Working Hours. Working from home with kids in the house means there are likely certain times that just don’t work any more.  Set mutually agreed upon expectations about when people will be available for quick calls or quick responses to emails.
  • Contact Method. Is texting still okay, or is email better, given any adjustments to working hours?
  • Emotional Support. Take the time to ask how things are going at home and how employees are coping.  Remind employees of employer benefits such as the company’s Employee Assistance Program, or other counselling services.


Delegation is at the very heart of leadership. It’s the primary method by which leaders accomplish their two most essential goals: to have a positive impact on people and results

I encourage you to download the Delegation Checklist and simply give it a try to see if it might remind you to nail every key aspect of effective delegation and become the kind of leader you’d like to follow.