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By Sharon K. Parker, Caroline Knight & Anita Keller
COVID-19 has thrust many leaders into remote management, a mode that calls for skills that are very different from those required in face-to-face management. For the most part, managers have had to make this transition quickly and without training. While some jobs have proved well-suited for the remote environment, many workers have home lives that present overwhelming challenges. As a result, managers may be finding their roles to be more difficult than before—and making their subordinates’ lives more stressful in the process.
Even before the pandemic, managing teleworkers presented unique obstacles. Research shows that managers who cannot “see” their direct reports sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are indeed working. When such doubts creep in, managers can start to develop an unreasonable expectation that those team members be available at all times, ultimately disrupting their work-home balance and causing more job stress.
If we look at what is happening today and consider the many scenarios employees may be facing—especially those with compromised finances or families to care for—we can hypothesize that certain workers are struggling to perform at the same level as they did before. This could create a negative spiral in which manager mistrust leads to micromanagement, which then leads to drops in employee motivation, eventually impairing productivity.
To investigate this hypothesis, we invited remote workers all over the world to participate in an ongoing study that began last April. We developed a survey of 92 questions to investigate how Covid-19 is affecting both managers’ and employees’ work, well-being and productivity. We asked participants whether they have the opportunity to choose when, where and how they carry out their jobs; whether work interferes with their home life; and whether they experience technological hassles. We also checked how participants felt at work, in an effort to measure levels of engagement, emotional exhaustion, anxiety or enthusiasm.
More than 1200 people in 24 different countries completed the survey. Our preliminary findings suggest that many managers are struggling in their roles, and would benefit from more support.
About 40 percent of the 215 supervisors and managers in our study expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. Many reported lacking the confidence to influence remote workers to do their job well and effectively coordinate a team of remote workers.
Managers also had negative views about remote workers’ performance. Thirty-eight percent of managers agreed that remote workers usually perform worse than those who work in an office. Many were also dubious about whether remote workers can remain motivated over time.
Generally negative attitudes toward remote work seemed to spill over into the way managers’ perceived their own employees as well. Quite a few managers reported not trusting the competence of their own employees, with 29 percent questioning whether their employees had the required knowledge do to their work, and 27 percent agreeing that their employees’ lacked essential skills.
Altogether, the picture is not a rosy one, suggesting that a substantial number of managers have low confidence in their capability to lead remotely, have rather negative views of this work practice and distrust their own workers. Now more than ever businesses should prioritize the development of these managers’ skills in a remote environment.
Based on our research, we recommend the following actions:
Start at the highest level possible
The managers who struggled the most with leading remote teams had low job autonomy and excessively controlling and distrustful bosses. This result suggests that organizations must create change at the highest level possible.
Provide support for remote work within the organization
Organizations need to move beyond rhetoric in terms of supporting flexible work. They should ensure workers have the equipment needed, provide resources to support staff well-being and give training to support flexible working, for example. These changes will not only help workers who are operating from home; they will also allow managers to give a strong signal about the company’s genuine commitment to this work practice.
Educate managers about the potential benefits of remote working
Existing research shows that telework can be more productive than office work when workers are afforded greater autonomy. Make sure your managers understand clearly how micromanagement can nullify the benefits of remote work and what changes should be put in place to facilitate effective teleworking.
Teach managers how to delegate
Simply telling managers to trust their employees is unlikely to be sufficient. Rather, leaders need to learn new skills of delegation and empowerment to provide their workers with greater autonomy. At the same time, autonomy shouldn’t mean less communication with employees. Rather than checking up on people as a way to micromanage them, however, managers should check in with people to provide information, guidance and support.
Have managers manage by results
Managing by results goes hand in hand with job autonomy. When you give people the discretion to decide for themselves how and when they will work, it is important to assess whether they are delivering the results. Hence, managers need to put more focus on the outputs of the work.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, some managers are having a hard time adjusting to managing without “line of sight.” As they struggle to adjust, their employees are suffering the consequences, in the form of close monitoring and distrust from their bosses. Luckily, managers can and should be supported and trained to manage their employees more effectively from a distance. It’s an important first step toward building trust and increasing productivity.
Sharon K. Parker is an Australian Research Council laureate fellow, a professor of management at Curtin University and director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design. Caroline Knight is a research fellow at The Centre For Transformative Work Design. Anita Keller is an assistant professor at the organizational psychology department, University of Groningen.