While the shift to remote work has affected just about all of the world, it hasn’t affected everyone equally. Some businesses have thrived, while others have struggled. Likewise, some employees have adapted while others have suffered. Some of the results are due to preexisting structures of inequality, but in other cases, the problem boils down to one main factor: how companies handle remote work management.
Management plays a direct role in all aspects where remote work has led to improvements: productivity, engagement, satisfaction and loyalty. For this reason, it’s especially important that businesses focus on how managers interact with their teams. This holds true for high-level executives, but perhaps even more for mid- and low-level managers who work most closely with specialists and associates. Why? It all boils down to establishing trust.
Trust: The Essence of Remote Work Management
Trust may seem a rather abstract concept on which to pin the success of remote work, but its benefits are well-documented. According to Gallup, high levels of employee trust improve prospects of worker retention, communication, and implementing new initiatives. And what is a shift to remote work if not a complex collection of new initiatives?
Because of the limits of personal networks, organizations have to foster trust through cascading personal connections. In other words, a company’s leadership earns their employees’ trust only if everyone in between them fosters that trust. Furthermore, trust doesn’t just cascade vertically from superior to subordinate. It also transfers across teams.
All this points to the importance that low- and mid-level managers play in fostering trust within a company. It’s essential that businesses provide them with the support and guidance they need to lead and manage effectively. It’s at this point that we move from the abstract to the concrete — from the importance of trust, to specific management practices that can help develop it.
Don’t Monitor Activity—Monitor Results
Far too often, managers in face-to-face settings gauged productivity by hours spent working — or rather, hours spent in the office. Reliance on the “butts in seats” metric, however, promotes an unhealthy culture of presenteeism. Studies prior to the pandemic showed that workers loafed around the office anywhere from three to five hours on average.
In shifting to remote work, many managers turned to surveillance software designed to mimic in-person invigilation. Some are fairly innocuous, involving no more than a time-in system or an activity indicator. Others, though, are extremely invasive: recording screens or even logging keystrokes. It should be obvious that this much suspicions is a quick way to erode your employees’ trust.
Managers should note that remote work involves a blurring between work life and everything else. This entails a change in assessing productivity — especially since old methods were already unreliable anyway. Rather than assiduously track which and how many hours employees spend clocked in, focus on task completion and turnaround times. Trust your workers to get work done, however works best for them.
Organize in Smaller Teams
Just as managers can only build trust directly with small teams, similarly, employees can only form a few meaningful connections within the company. One way to encourage trust is to organize employees into small, mutually supportive groups — not just according to the company org chart, but according to the circumstances they face in working remotely.
“The more virtual the work, the more structure you need,” says Cynthia Spraggs, author of How To Work From Home And Actually Get Sh*t Done. This applies to the informal relationships often taken for granted in the office. By organizing people into groups based on challenges they face — parents with kids to manage, or workers with elderly parents to care for, or people who for any reason can’t work during more ‘normal’ hours at home — you can foster a sense of solidarity among employees that solidifies their belonging within the company.
Let Employees Set Work-Life Boundaries
Productivity has improved overall with remote work, but this has some analysts worried. The spike in performance, they say, could be driven by the erasure of boundaries between work and the rest of life. People have been working longer hours, because work has bled into their daily lives. Short-term gains could lead, in the long run, to individual burnout or team-wide collapse.
It’s important that managers not just allow, but encourage subordinates to set healthy boundaries on work. It’s critical that each individual set these boundaries because — as mentioned in the last segment — everyone deals with different challenges outside the office.
If this seems a bit much, remember that the pace that office life once demanded of us is unsustainable online. Meetings or discussions that once provided a reprieve from screens are now conducted virtually, leading to video call fatigue. Trusting in employees includes trusting them to know what sort of routine helps them do their best work — and empowering them to stick to it.
Remote work management requires a shift in discipline. Instead of exercising unilateral control — and surveillance — managers must learn to trust employees’ own sense of discipline. This is especially true when that discipline doesn’t look like what a manager might expect. Only by first showing this degree of trust can they earn workers’ trust in turn. But once they have it, they’ll find themselves freed from the burden of single-handedly adapting a team to remote work — because that team will be helping them through it.