Going remote has been a challenge for cultures of many companies that value presence and face-to-face time, and has pushed many other teams in a direction of monitoring and surveillance, much to the dissatisfaction of employees. Being watched is not a pleasant feeling, and having your productivity and presence categorized – as a lot of these surveillance tools are doing – through always-on webcams and monitoring software will undoubtedly leave your employees feeling guilty and in the end unproductive, so why do it?
The best remote teams on the planet thrive on trust. They are creating an environment where performance is measured on output, rather than input. That leaves employees with a healthier and often more flexible lifestyle: If you are on track with your work, you can take more time to re-charge. No need to sit idle on your desk and wait until the clock is ringing for 6 pm.
The underlying fear of slacking off
Micro-managing is a real problem for many companies. In a survey, 69% of respondents mentioned that they have considered changing positions because of it. Yet, it's common to see and often a way for said managers to calm their nerves, be in the clear about the process of a product, and step in if needed. The underlying issue of micro-managing is trust: If a manager doesn't trust their reports, then they will never be able to let go and let people do their best work.
A lot of these companies wouldn't consider work-from-home if they weren't forced to do it. The result of this is this environment, where people are being watched, monitored and put under surveillance. There comes the first issue: there is only harm in doing so, and absolutely nothing to gain.
In Basecamp's book about remote work, there is an iconic paragraph that states:
"Most fears that have to do with people working remotely stem from a lack of trust. A manager thinks, Will people work hard if I’m not watching them all the time? If I can’t see them sitting pretty at their desks, are they just going to goof off and play video games or surf the web all day? We’ll let you in on a secret: If people really want to play video games or surf the web all day, they’re perfectly capable of doing so from their desks at the office."
By starting to monitor your employees, you will put the majority of employees under a lot of unwanted stress and not catch the bad apples that have been wasting your time and money all along (and there are very few of them). You can trust the majority of employees that they'll act in your and their best interest and will produce the same work – if not more – than before.
So, now that managers can't look over their reports' shoulders to see what they are up to, what can they do to ensure people are on the job? Track the programs they have open? Take an image every minute to ensure they are at their desk? Please, don't be silly.
What counts in the end is that everyone is doing their work. People can rely on their peers not to slack off and deadlines are being held or executed as good as they can. Measuring output, not input, is what we usually talk about here. That also means that you can't enforce people to start working at 8 am, that you can't make sure they work exactly 8 hours or more on a Friday – it means that you'll have to look back at the week and see if the progress was satisfactory.
For managers that like to go hands-on (read: micro-manage) that can be hard. But setting up these expectations, tracking whether people are on track to reach the deadlines and recognizing pitfalls early on is absolutely a full-time job that leaves no time to micro-manage. You will find that the ability to step back and look at things from a bird-eye view will leave you to be a better manager.
The sad truth: You will find that sometimes the output is not as you had expected. In these scenarios, it's important not to blame 'work-from-home', but to take a look at the past month and do a full retrospective to see where things went wrong. Did you recognize that you won't reach a deadline, but took no action? Did your report misreport their progress? Was there a glitch in communication that resolved in this error, or was there simply not enough time?
Again, this will leave you to be a better manager, even back at the office.
Bringing ease of mind to the micro-manager
We recognize that sitting back and looking at things from a distance isn't satisfactory to many managers who are used to go all-in, but you need to internalize that sitting on the neck of your reports has no future, especially not in a remote environment.
What you can do instead is schedule more 1-on-1s with people in rotation. This could happen every week or every other week with your reports. This is your chance to get some insight into what people are up to, but more importantly what challenges they face and detecting dangers of not completing a project. They can also be the socialization and sense of community you might need when working more or less alone.
Even though you are looking at things from a distance, you should also never feel blind. Be sure that people put work reports in writing once per week. As you go into a 1-on-1, study these reports, detect upcoming issues, ask about progress and milestones and shift from being a pain in the neck and often a source of frustration to being the unblocker and helper for your reports.