If I Can’t Monitor My Remote Employees, They Must Not be Working

During times of uncertainty, trust between employers and employees becomes even more critical.
6 min read | by Jennifer Cameron 
Empty Office

Most of us probably don’t want to relive March 2020 – and the fear and uncertainty that accompanied the lockdowns at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic – ever again.  So why does trust matter? When you don’t trust your employees, it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusion about their behavior.  But indulge me a moment, if you will.

You’re the manager of a busy and reliable team, suddenly forced to work from home when your governor shut down all non-essential business in your state. You’ve partnered with IT to make sure your direct reports are all equipped with everything they need to be successful – laptops, cameras, secure connections to the company network. In the absence of your usual face-to-face time, you’ve set up regular video calls with everyone to ensure you’re connecting. During your regular team meeting, you talk about remote work best practices. Everyone’s sharing articles with remote work tips. You let out a small sigh of relief you’ve been able to transition so smoothly to this new way of working.

This time has been challenging for you outside of work. You’re worried about the health of your elderly parents. You’re wondering if your kids will learn anything the rest of the school year. And where are you going to find more toilet paper? Thankfully, the one thing in your control is work. You’ve set up your team so they won’t miss a beat. 

And then, a few weeks in, you’re starting to wonder about one of your usual top performers. Deshawn is taking longer and longer to respond to your emails and instant messages. Sometimes, your calls go right to his voicemail. Is he even working? It’s so frustrating to not be in the office and be able to see what he’s doing. Maybe it’s time to look into that software for employee monitoring that you’ve been hearing about. 

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Turin government offices in Prefettura - Italy
Turin government offices in Prefettura, Italy

Offices: Because This is How We’ve Always Done It

If the phrase “office building” conjures up images of modern suburban office parks or gleaming downtown towers, it might surprise you to know that they’ve actually been around since ancient Rome. Their growth accelerated in the 1600s and 1700s as the numbers of civil servants, lawyers, and the like increased in cities across Europe. And thus, office workers have toiled under the watchful eyes of their supervisors for generations.
 
Until relatively recent technological advances like the widespread availability of the Internet, it may not have occurred to most people that companies could operate in any other way. Jack Nilles is not most people. The physicist and USC researcher, known as the “father of telecommuting,” has been advocating for remote work since the 1970s, when he proposed the idea of satellite offices or work-from-home arrangements as a remedy for traffic congestion and the resulting air pollution he witnessed in California. Despite an experiment that showed increased productivity and less stress among the employees he referred to as “teleworkers” – not to mention, the potential savings in commercial real estate costs – employers did not jump on board. Decades later, resistance remains among many organizations that aren’t comfortable with the idea of remote work.
 

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A Crash Course in Remote Work

With the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, government-mandated lockdowns for non-essential businesses were widespread in the United States beginning in March 2020. Whether they were ready or not, whether they were willing or not, companies were thrust into conducting business remotely. Millions of Americans stopped commuting and set up their laptops in dining rooms and spare bedrooms across the country in an effort to keep organizations running as best they could.
 
Remote work benefits abound for employees and employers. In the best of times (read: regular, non-pandemic times), employees who work remotely are generally more productive, more loyal, less distracted, and able to achieve a better work-life balance. In the worst of times (read: pandemics, personal crises), remote work arrangements should give employees the flexibility and grace to remain employed and as productive as possible while they contend with situations at home. 
 
For many managers, the pandemic was their first experience overseeing remote teams. The ability to gauge productivity by seeing the work done in person was gone. In the absence of that, managers had to figure out how to know if their employees were doing their work. 

So, let’s check back on Deshawn …

It’s another couple of weeks before you realize what a terrible misperception you’ve developed about Deshawn. During your one-on-one with Olivia , she lets you know how Deshawn has gone out of his way to help her solve a problem she was having with her latest project. She wants you to know how supportive he’s been, jumping on phone calls after dinner, answering emails early in the morning. 
 
It’s then that it hits you: Deshawn is as devoted to this job as ever. When you’re able to have a frank conversation, he apologizes for his slow responses to you. His daughter has been struggling with remote learning and really needed his support throughout the school day. His partner has been ill and worried about her job. He’s dealing with the same struggles you are, and he’s putting in the time outside “regular working hours” to keep up with his responsibilities.

Why Trust Matters 

When you don’t trust your employees, it’s easy to jump to the wrong conclusion about their behavior, as Deshawn’s manager did. And when they don’t trust you, they can be reluctant to share what’s going on because they’re worried about your reaction. Trust is the foundation of your working relationships, and absolutely necessary to keep your organization running smoothly.  
 
For company leadership, the pandemic hastened the need to clearly establish a remote work policy. It also presented an opportunity to reflect on the kind of culture they want. It’s hard to attract and retain talent if your company has a reputation of not trusting its employees. And employees have spoken loudly and clearly: The use of employee monitoring software would erode their trust. 
 
With fully remote work opportunities and hybrid models of working likely to be the standard moving forward, companies must put in the hard work of building a culture of trust to enable success.

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Originally Published by Jennifer Cameron on Monday, May 17, 2021 - 12:47 | Updated On Saturday, August 21, 2021 - 23:37

We would like to thank Brett Perceval for her contributions to this article. 

Tags:
Trust
, The Remote Employee Experience
, Establishing Trust Checklist
, Leadership
, Telework
, Human Resources Today
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