Long Distance Delegation: Do’s & Don’ts

By Marla Rosner, Principal, InstillLeadership

Managing a far-flung team is increasingly the norm these days. Though a daily affair, delegating from a distance has a unique set of pitfalls. How do you know if those to whom you’re delegating “get it” when you can’t see facial expressions across the desk? Many managers who might be more prudent in delegating to somebody in their home office will abandon protocols when the individual receiving the project is out of sight. So what are the best practices of virtual delegation and how can you avoid common pitfalls?

Best Practices

1. Evaluate who you’re delegating to and their experience and capability with similar projects.

2. Make a conscious decision about your method of communication. A phone call is best for certain communications, while email is appropriate for other messages. For example, Sonya VandeKerkhof, CEO of Conscious Budget & Debt Reduction, Inc., who delegates to personnel in Australia, wisely provides her vision and inspiration about projects in a phone call when voice tone and inflection as well as dialogue with direct reports makes a difference in their understanding and “buy-in.” She also leaves more time for silence, to allow questions and comments to come to the surface.

In contrast, Sonya uses email to address timelines, methods, standards and other project details, enabling crisp documentation while still allowing for Q and A. She also takes advantage of Google Apps to have her far-flung team collaborate on project documents and color codes projects to signal priorities. Sonya makes email efficient by titling each message “FYI,” “Question,” or “Action Needed,” enabling her distance workers to prioritize their emails.

3. Listen carefully and follow up. In the absence of non-verbal feedback, reading “between the lines” takes on more importance. For example, Robert Mann, President at Lumenis, offsets the lack of non-verbal feedback from long-distance personnel by listening carefully to comments and questions in phone calls. He knows those receiving an assignment have understood it when they expand on the principles of the message, paraphrase and ask appropriate questions, and delegate appropriately to their direct reports. Robert follows conversations with email or text notes adding to the primary conversation.


1. Don’t drop a new project on someone through email and expect them to fully understand your needs and requirements.

2. Don’t assign a project without follow-up appointments to check on progress and challenges.

3. Don’t take the “one size fits all” approach when it comes to delegating. Consider who you’re communicating with and determine whether more or less detail is required. Efficiency may dictate one email to all project participants but may not account for individual needs to ask questions or get more information.

In short, virtual delegation requires more forethought, clear and crisp articulation, openings for dialogue, and solid follow-through to ensure assignments are understood and executed properly. Good delegation at the outset of a project saves time, hassle and misunderstanding down the road. If you think you’ve missed a step, however, rethink your strategy and shore up communication gaps to salvage projects that may have gotten off track.

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