Numerous reports indicate that productivity has increased rather than decreased as a result of remote work during the pandemic. However, many managers worry that their people are not working as hard as they should be or doing their jobs right without supervision. For many of them, the dreaded Zoom call has become the micromanagement tool of choice.
The shift towards remote work hasn’t always been easy. Even managers not usually predisposed to micromanagement have floundered without access to the normal tools and processes for managing teamwork. Unable to walk past their colleagues’ desks for updates, many have fallen back on endless virtual stand-up meetings, team huddles and teleconference calls to stay in touch.
However, these endless meetings drain time that people could be using to get their work done. They might be demotivating for employees who are confident in their ability to work independently. Some research suggests that they are not even effective in their goal of pushing people to deliver what’s expected of them.
A Wundamail survey of remote workers in the US and UK earlier this year found that 27% of employees said the virtual meetings were “the biggest communication barrier” in their work. They were three times more likely to deliver on actions agreed in writing rather than via video and some 30% reported that they do not complete actions agreed over video calls.
There are more effective ways of going about managing a team remotely, while empowering them to do their jobs.
Here are four tips compiled from HR professionals, managers and analysts for managing a virtual team without using video meetings as a crutch:
- Embrace the technology
The right project management and workflow tools can help people to manage themselves and self-report on progress, while giving managers transparency into workflow. Software like Basecamp, Asana and Trello helps managers stay abreast of projects without needing to constantly ask employees for updates.
Wise use of collaborative platforms like Slack or Teams can keep everyone in touch without the need for constant meetings or phone calls. They can enable asynchronous communication, so that an employee can ask for help or a manager can seek an update without the need to interrupt work for a routine, non-urgent question.
- Delegate the task, not the approach
US management consultant, Ann Latham recommends delegating the what, not the how. “If you actually want someone to take responsibility and use their brains, they need to understand what they are trying to accomplish and why. What will success look like? What will be different when they are done? How will they know when they are finished” she writes.
Assuming that the employee knows what they’re doing, let them get on with it to meet the deadline. If the task is something new to them or if it needs to be done in a really specific way (for compliance reasons, for example), they should be given the support and resources to do the job. Let them know how, when and who to ask for help – there is a fine line between letting someone flounder and micromanaging or fostering dependency.
- Focus on outcomes, not hours
There are many horror stories about managers finding ways to control every minute of a remote worker’s office hours, from making them leave their webcams on so they can be watched to requiring them to install monitoring software on personal laptops. According to Gartner, 20% of companies purchased tracking software or technology to monitor employees during April and May.
This comes from an impulse to manage people’s working hours rather than their output. Yes, there are some jobs where it’s important to be there to answer the phone or respond to an email. However, there are others where the best way to judge is by the quality and the quantity of the person’s output and whether they meet their deadlines.
“Rather than checking in with your remote team members every hour on the hour or invading their privacy with software that scans their activity every few minutes and snaps a photo, creates a results-oriented atmosphere from the start. Provide clear expectations for each project, including setting quantifiable objectives and deadlines,” writes Laura Spawn, CEO at Virtual Vocations.
- Good management is all about letting go
“Micromanagers create dependency on themselves, so the opposite is naturally to equip your team members to be more autonomous… Along the way, provide self-help resources and advice when solicited,” says remote work strategist, Laurel Farrer. “Although, remember not to go too far toward the other extreme of abandoning or isolating your workforce.”
Getting this right is about creating tools and processes that empower people and give them autonomy. Communication is key. A predictable structure – including weekly check-in calls or biweekly stand-ups – can help tame the need for multiple impromptu status meetings or the need for employees to report back constantly on progress.
Setting up processes and systems – provided they’re not too rigid – can ensure consistency and cohesion. Often, written instruction via email will be more direct and efficient than yet another videoconference. The goal of all this is to allow people to manage themselves and their output without needing to be prompted.
Above all, trust your team
According to a study conducted among 400 enterprises by World Wide Worx, the shift to remote working has led to improved productivity for 29% of South African organisations. Perhaps this shows that the fears of productivity loss during work-from-home are misplaced and that people can be trusted to do the right thing.
As Gartner says: “[Micromanaging] will only disengage and fatigue already stressed employees. The best thing you can do as a manager right now is to suspend your disbelief and put utmost trust and confidence in your employees that they will do the right thing — which they will if employers provide a supportive structure.”