Avoiding the two extremes in remote worker management
| May 28, 2020
If your company is one of the countless enterprises that has managed to stay afloat under COVID-19 quarantines by suddenly shifting to remote teams, it is probably comprised mainly of “knowledge workers” who process information for a living. Your managers, who are used to guiding these workers through face-to-face interactions, are adapting their skills to a new environment, and they’re just now catching their breath amid the rapid change.
In this new environment, many managers are gravitating toward an extreme focus on one of two management styles: widespread surveillance or total worker autonomy. Both extreme postures obfuscate the essential fact that successful management practices must focus more than ever on employee well-being and happiness.
The failure of a surveillance culture
At one extreme, managers who are struggling with remote work oversight are implementing always-on web cameras or screen monitoring technology to ensure that employees are actually working during the time they are being paid to work. Managers who fear their employees are less productive at home have also implemented practices like constant check-ins or mandatory lunchtime chats to see if work is being done correctly.
But information processing is about output, both in volume and quality, and workers say that surveillance disrupts work-life balance and increases stress and exhaustion. Knowledge workers require intrinsic motivation that is undermined by corporate surveillance. Such micromanaging shows employees that managers don’t trust them. Employees, in turn, then don’t trust their managers and are likely to hide negative information from them.
The failure of an exclusive focus on autonomy
Sensing the pitfalls of surveillance culture, managers will sometimes take the other extreme, hands-off approach: They set clear KPIs and simply tell team members that they are trusted to find their own best way to achieve the goals set by the managers and their companies.
Struggling with how to support distant employees, many managers may tell themselves that active support just gets in the way. Simply provide the tools and the goals, they think, and let these employees run on their own.
Though providing goals and setting clear KPIs are important, they are not motivators by themselves. An extreme focus on autonomy will fail to elicit optimal output just as an extreme focus on surveillance does.
How to engage remote employees
Knowledge work, whether it is focused on customer service issues or specialized business problems, requires the application of social intelligence, complex analytics and creative insight. Workers with these abilities thrive and contribute only when they are highly engaged. For this, they require a sense of security, confidence and purpose. In a remote work environment, where companies can no longer provide highly valued office perks, these truths simply become more important.
Company operators must become employee happiness innovators, and managers must become happiness implementors. Numerous thinkers like Daniel Pink, Adam Grant and Angela Duckworth have stated that employee happiness rests on three pillars: mastery, autonomy and meaning. Financial and other employee benefits only help maximize employee output when those employees feel that that they know how to do their job, have the freedom to do it according to their own decisions and find meaning or purpose in the work they do.
Our new work environment requires managers to be more focused than ever before on providing these pillars. The ability to do so relies on the hard work of an executive to create and articulate a clear vision, then perfect the resources employees need to do their part in contributing to that vision.
How leaders and managers can implement happiness
Committing to a vision and the resources to support it is always difficult, and it may be even harder in the uncertain fog of a global pandemic. However, a number of management practices can maintain employee engagement and drive organizations forward.
Start by implementing new communications standards that fit the current environment. The more certainty that you provide your team, the better its members will be able to focus on pushing forward:
Host monthly town halls where your leadership reinforces your vision. Save time at the end for employees to ask questions and share their opinions.
Create projects that push your vision forward. Taking immediate action to implement your vision gives your employees a boost of confidence in your company’s success. For example, at my own company we conducted an employee survey that we used to immediately establish new policies, committees and actions built on employee consensus. Nearly every employee was tasked with being a part of at least one committee, giving everyone a chance to take part in the decision-making process and contribute to short-term success.
Town halls, even virtual ones via Zoom, create a sense of connection and ensure that there’s no information void where negative rumors can take root. Hold them regularly and launch projects that allow for near-term wins to foster positive behaviors and continued achievements. Success is ultimately a habit for both individuals and organizations, and taking these actions ensures that employees have opportunities to see it realized.
Everyday communication is also key to finding the right balance between micromanaging your employees and rarely checking in with them. This means being thoughtful about the adoption of tools like task-management software, employee chat and internal social software feeds.
Remote teams and the future of management
Workers who require surveillance and other micromanagement techniques are not valuable to the kinds of firms that can function with remote teams — those engaged in creative knowledge work. On the other hand, employees who wish to function with complete autonomy won’t likely derive much value from being part of a firm.
To be successful with remote teams, firms must have management that is focused on required remote work that fosters employee mastery and purpose — and complement it with the right level of autonomy. To do so, managers can constantly innovate by:
- Improving and enlivening training.
- Building platforms for continuous learning.
- Fostering social connection through things like virtual lunches and happy hours, personal check-ins at the beginnings of meetings and fun chat channels where employees can share their pets, food and TV picks to get to know each other on a personal level.
- Communicating a vision around which every team member derives meaning.
The new remote work environment will require and facilitate rapid innovation in how employees are managed. Organizations that are able to engage employees and foster happiness, rather than relying on surveillance or total autonomy, can optimize employee output in a way that lasts long after the pandemic.
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