For the past decade, millions of managers around the world resisted the trend of remote work based on the fear that they wouldn’t be able to monitor productivity without being able to see the workforce in action in the office, asking the classic question of “How will I know that my workers are working, if I can’t see them?”
This doubt is rooted in hundreds of years of tradition. During the industrial revolution, co-located workforces originated when laborers used physical equipment to produce physical products, and it was the manager’s responsibility to supervise this physical activity. Now, we are using virtual equipment to produce virtual products, but our management methods are still habitually based on those historical physical methods of in-person visibility. The role that a leader needs to play in a remote work environment is uniquely designed for supervising virtual activity, and therefore requires new methods and strategies.
Without these critical updates, managers become worried about how to effectively supervise productivity without physical visibility, and incorrectly overcompensate by obsessing over how to monitor and control the activity of their teams, and integrate themselves into more workflows and protocols than usual to stay informed. The intention is sound, but the result is unhealthy micromanagement that can quickly weaken the productivity of a group, or the emotional health of its members.
As the world unexpectedly adopted work-from-home contingency plans this year, most managers never received the training they needed in order to adapt their leadership methods for virtual collaboration, so cases of micromanagement have been on the rise. Be on the lookout for these 12 signs to reveal if virtual micromanagement is happening in your company too.
- Constant Reporting – In a feeble attempt to replace the physical visibility they used to have in the office, virtual supervision is attempted by enforcing a multiple-times-per-day reporting schedule, thinking it will keep employees paced and productive, but it only interrupts workflow and communicates mistrust.
- Over-Scheduling – To prevent distractions or slumps in the workday, meticulous daily itineraries are assigned for each employee to follow. If you don’t trust your team to pace their own work and schedule their own breaks, why did you hire them in the first place?
- Meeting Monologues – What better proof that a team is oppressed than in meetings when the only voice to be heard is the manager’s? The point of shared synchronous time is to collaborate; announcements are for memos.
- Suppressing Ideas and Insights – Remote workers are already at high risk for feeling isolated, invisible, and ignored; which means they should be given more channels to express suggestions and concerns, not “shushed” when they make a point during a call.
- Locked Decision Making – Afraid that autonomy may escalate into mutiny, insecure leadership attempts to stifle independence by inserting themselves into every decision-making protocol, whether large or small.
- Unnecessary Monitoring – Activity monitoring software can be a great resource for compliance and liability, but when misused as employee surveillance, it’s an incredible invasion of privacy and trust.
- Inflexible Instructions – Similar to over-scheduling, some managers will also over-instruct when assigning tasks by giving superfluous step-by-step instructions, believing that their methods are the only right ones and creating an unhealthy dependence on their leadership.
- Pressure to Perform – Most corporate executives are pleasantly surprised to notice the increase in output and productivity that comes with the adoption of remote work and results-based tracking methods, so they unconsciously pressure their workforce to continue to strengthen those metrics. This expectation neglects to support the delicate work-life balance of home office work environments and increases risk of depression, illegal unpaid overtime, and burnout.
- Back-to-Back Meeting Schedule – As another attempt to regain physical visibility into productivity, video calls can be leaned on as a substitute for in-person collaboration. Yes, that is going to create group conversation time, but you’re sabotaging productivity by preventing independent work time.
- Rapid Response Time – When micromanagers need something, they need it NOW. So, the lack of accessibility of their remote workers can seem frustrating or inefficient, and they’ll try to enforce rules demanding immediate responses to all messages. On the other hand, effective virtual managers learn how to leverage asynchronous communication to increase productivity for themselves and for their team.
- Troubleshooting Dependency – Even with the best of intentions to support, when leaders tell their offsite workers to “call me any time you have a question,” they’re creating dependency on their knowledge, instead of empowering the team member to think critically and solve the problem independently.
- Time Measurement – A classic pitfall for new-to-remote leaders is to continue the pattern of measuring productivity with time, based on the habit of working during office hours. Remember that being in a certain location at a certain time doesn’t mean that an employee is “working.” Instead, results-based work environments will more accurately measure productivity and give the supervisor more peace of mind with proof and tangible results.
Did you recognize yourself or any of your leadership habits in that list? Well, don’t worry. It’s not too late to become a trusting, empathetic long-distance leader. Here are three first steps that you can take to resolving or preventing micromanagement in your virtual operations:
- Structure for Independence – Micromanagers create dependency on themselves, so the opposite is naturally to equip your team members to be more autonomous and do the job that you hired them to do. Along the way, provide self-help resources and advice when solicited. Although, remember not to go too far toward the other extreme of abandoning or isolating your workforce. Stay accessible, stay supportive, but be willing to stay out of the way.
- Implement Asynchronous Communication – In remote work, you’re not only giving your employees geographic space, but space in time and logistics as well. Empowering a staff to structure their own schedules will optimize their productivity based on individual preferences about working styles, circadian rhythms, and personal work environments. Leaning into asynchronous communication for group collaboration and reporting will allow all of the team members to come and go as needed, without missing any of the conversations or instructions.
- Communicate Empathetically – Remember, remote workers are at high risk for feeling isolated, invisible, and ignored, so the greatest skills that you can develop as a leader is to “see” people when they can’t be seen. Practice expressing more appreciation, proactively asking questions, and discussing personal topics to remind your staff how much you value and appreciate them, regardless of where they are located.
When adjusting to virtual leadership, don’t fall into the trap of thinking that your role is less relevant than it was in the office because you can’t physically supervise your team. On the contrary, your expertise is even more important than it was in a co-located environment, because it’s your communication and coordination that keeps a distributed group unified and aligned.
Make no mistake, remote workers need management, but they also need more self-management. As with so many things in life, the solution is balance. Optimizing autonomy in remote work is finding a delicate balance between meticulous control and “out of sight, out of mind” abandonment.