Imagine an orchestra of musicians who’ve been rehearsing together for years. Suddenly, they’re forced to practice separately in different locations, connected only by video link.
They may still find a way to make beautiful music — as we learned from the many fine Zoom concerts performed in 2020 by orchestras around the world — but without devising and implementing systems to ensure better long-distance rehearsals, they’re unlikely to approach the brilliance of their live concerts.
Businesses today face much the same problem. When everyone’s in the office, it’s easy to call a last-minute meeting to keep the team focused or stop by the desk of the marketing lead for a quick pep talk on the way back from lunch. But with workers in different locations, momentum often slows. This is because most companies have resisted, or are unaware of, the simple managerial steps that make remote workers just as productive as they’d been in the office, if not more so.
Remote work may be new and unfamiliar to countless managers and executives, but at Virtira, it’s our comfort zone. We’ve been telecommuting since inception more than a decade ago. By implementing strategies to improve workflow, project execution and team enablement, we help clients reach revenue and operational targets. My forthcoming Forbes book, The Power of Remote, co-authored by Virtira Executive Chair Cynthia Watson, details these strategies with plenty of options for implementation.
Despite the impressive productivity we saw from remote workers in the pandemic’s early days, a sizable gap remains between what virtual teams achieve and what their managers and executives expect — and it threatens to erode employee engagement, well-being, and trust, not to mention the bottom line.
We see it all the time: countless managers long comforted by the sight of a room of associates stiff-backed at their desks now worry what their remote workers might be getting up to. But leadership styles need to evolve along with our working world.
One common refrain in the book is that working on “remote island” necessitates more attentive management, from establishing strong communication to instilling culture and purpose. This is because it bears repeating: the more remote your workforce, the more structure you need to replace office walls with virtual ones.
Achieving this requires moving away from traditional brick-and-mortar oversight and surveillance and embracing results-driven and flexible work models. For far too long, in-office work has enabled many mediocre managers to carry on without causing much visible damage, to ignore best practices and still do just fine.
They drop by team members’ desks for casual chats to maintain social connections, even though this interrupts employee work and undermines productivity. They fail to accurately outline a worker’s upcoming task because they know they’ll be able to jump in later to provide added guidance. They keep their staffers on a short leash because they believe the lack of decision-making power will make employees hard-working and loyal, not realizing that it will also curb employee autonomy and problem-solving, reducing innovation and growth.
With any luck, this outdated management mindset will disappear as remote takes hold. Managers nowadays need to implement policies, processes, and tools that support autonomous workers while keeping virtual teams aligned and accountable.
First off, trust your team enough to give them some decision-making power and an understanding of where they fit in the broader scheme. Managers, of course, will not always be there to assign a remote team member their next task, so it helps to give remote workers intermediate and longer-term targets and enable them to extrapolate how to get there.
The second step starts with an understanding that being busy is not the same as being productive. Many companies that were relative newcomers to remote work invested, in the pandemic’s early days, in employee-monitoring software that tracks URLs and keystrokes and might even keep a webcam trained on the worker.
This Big Brother-like set-up naturally breeds stress, resentment, and distrust in virtual workers, most of whom are well aware of what they need to get done and when. More importantly, these monitoring and surveillance tools measure activity, not achievement.
Consider Hubstaff, a popular monitoring tool for remote workers. Once the employee clocks in, the app starts recording time and worker activity: every second that passes is one in which the worker is either active — moves the mouse, uses the trackpad, or types on the keyboard — or inactive.
The Hubstaff report sent to the employer highlights the number of hours the employee works and his level of activity, and the worker is congratulated if he’s able to maintain an activity level of 50 percent or better. But this is a low bar that in fact says nothing about productivity. A worker could achieve an activity level of 90 percent while spending 100 percent of his time trolling friends on Twitter or napping while his five-year-old plays video games. He could even use software to mimic activity or install hardware that makes his mouse move .
These tools are antithetical to healthy and productive self-management and threaten to turn staffers into mindless droids who are experts at tricking spyware rather than at their job. Remote worker productivity should never be about hours worked, mouse clicks or keyboard strokes. Performance metrics that gauge output — deadlines hit, projects completed, pages written, candles sold, calls made — are not only more respectful of staff but actually indicative of productivity.
Europe seems to appreciate this, as governments there have begun to enforce reduced oversight for virtual workers. In Portugal, bosses can be fined for messaging their employees outside of work hours, while French workers have the right to ignore emails sent during non-work hours. In Canada, Ontario is mulling a law much like Portugal’s.
US workers, however, shouldn’t expect similar regulations anytime soon. California, for instance, has taken the opposite tack with a 2018 law that forces employers to pay workers for all the time they spend working, wherever they may be and whatever the time. This aligns with the old-school “the boss is king” thinking that tends to dominate the office environment.
But going remote, which requires more hands-on and informed management, is set to separate the managerial wheat from the chaff. The remote manager needs to be better organized, a better listener, a better coach, and a better communicator. The remote manager should be proactive and accountable, staying abreast of team members’ latest tasks, targets and deadlines while understanding how team goals align with corporate objectives.
Remote workers should no longer be treated like lost sheep in need of herding but as bold fledglings leaving the nest and in need of encouragement to fly. Teach transparency. Build culture and engagement. Keep yourself accountable and available. Replace surveillance with empowering, autonomy-centered solutions.
Create a virtual workplace where people know their targets and responsibilities and have a measure of decision-making power and room to grow, and the talent will come — and stick around. Isn’t that the best sign of a great manager?
 Hubstaff does offer an additional monitoring device: screenshots taken every few minutes. But growing privacy concerns have spurred many employers to disable that option.
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