The Right Way and the Wrong Way to Measure Remote Work
At the 2022 Conservative Party Conference in the UK, chairman Oliver Dowden argued that people should return to the office instead of spending their workday riding their Peloton. He was responding to remarks attributed to a senior civil servant, who said working from home allowed her to use the time saved by not commuting to exercise and gain a better work-life balance.
Dowden’s comments were criticized by those more familiar with this relatively modern way of working, but nonetheless spoke for many leaders, for whom work is something done under the watchful eye of a manager and is largely measured in terms of the hours spent physically in the workplace. These attitudes call to mind management theorist Douglas McGregor’s work from the 1960s, which posited workers were inherently lazy and needed constant supervision to be kept on track.
The Rise of Bossware
The University of St. Andrews conducted research on electric monitoring, a tactic that has seeped into the remote work space and has typified the knowledge economy during the pandemic. The report, which was conducted for the European Commission's Joint Research Council, chronicles the panoply of tools organizations have deployed to snoop on workers at home, including recording keystrokes, tracking movement and taking regular photos with the employee's webcam.
The research highlights how the demand for modern surveillance technology grew by 108% during April 2020, with the authors noting how the use of these tools belies a lack of trust between managers and employees. Although surveillance tools measure the quantity of work, the mistrust they invoke results in reduced quality, poorer mental health and diminished employee engagement and loyalty.
"There is a real surge in surveillance and 'bossware' technology during the pandemic, and I don't think it's going away as the ratchet tends to work in one way once you've established these things," said Michele Zanini, co-founder of the Management Lab and co-author of "Humanocracy." "It takes a concerted effort to row back on these efforts, but often employees are being monitored without them even realizing it."
Related Article: Is Responsible Employee Surveillance Possible?
Management's Lack of Trust on Display
When organizations monitor their workers’ every move, it explicitly signals they cannot be trusted to work effectively and efficiently of their own volition. Constant surveillance essentially questions their integrity, which can create a vicious cycle of employees trying to circumvent surveillance, which then spurs on the kind of actions and behaviors the systems were designed to prevent.
"It's easy to assume that the installation of these tools is the preserve of the most old-fashioned, Taylorist organizations, but the reality is that its most organizations," said Zanini. "If you're managing people with minute metrics and KPIs then this is another tool to allow you to do that more effectively, so if you're already in that mode it's an easy step to make."
So what can managers do instead? According to Zanini, a key advantage of working remotely is that it provides employees with the kind of autonomy that has been widely proven to underpin employee engagement and productivity. In fact, research has shown that when people are given the autonomy to decide when, where and how they work, they’re not only more productive but also more engaged, showing greater loyalty to their employer. Central to this is the notion of reciprocity — when people are treated well and supported, there is an innate desire to return that favor and give your best to your employer.
Related Article: How to Practice Ethical Employee Monitoring
Getting Metrics Right
All that being said, measurement isn’t inherently bad. After all, Peter Drucker famously said that what gets measured gets managed. Metrics have governed how we manage, whether that’s the time spent in a traditional workplace or activity measured by surveillance technology in a remote or hybrid setting.
Metrics have always been somewhat blunt -– they fail to capture the full nature and nuance of an employee's contributions or abilities, but good management is nonetheless founded on the ability to set clear goals and establish expectations. Zanini reminds us that even in autonomous teams, metrics are required because people will inevitably want to know what is working and what isn’t to manage their own performance and understand how it affects their team and organization.
"The question is who is using those metrics? Is it some bureaucrat far away from the front line or is it the direct teams using it to improve their own performance? Too often it is the former rather than the latter," she said.
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From a managerial perspective, measuring employees in a hybrid work environment likely spans across their individual performance, their role in their team/s and the consequences of their work on their internal or external customers. These three domains allow performance to be measured regardless of whether an employee is on-site or working remotely.
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Adapting Management for Virtual Teams
The hybrid model that many predict will be central to the way we work in the post-COVID-19 world will undoubtedly require other changes in how we manage. Research from the University of Maryland provides some valuable pointers for managing virtual teams. The research found that a hybrid model will require us to adapt all aspects of team management, from how we recruit and onboard to how teams are managed and disbanded.
For instance, during hiring, we will need to adapt job descriptions to establish clear expectations of how virtual teams will function. Onboarding will also need to change. Initial research from the pandemic suggests that the best results are achieved when new hires spend time with key personnel in an in-person setting during the first few months of their job.
Additionally, research from Curtin University highlights the crucial role feedback plays in the top-performing virtual teams. This is especially pertinent as remote teams often have less interactivity than their in-person counterparts. They also advocate higher levels of autonomy to allow team members to easily switch between tasks and communication channels depending on their circumstances. Social support was also crucial to compensate for the trust and cohesion that tends to be tacitly constructed in a face-to-face setting.
“We found that when teams have more complex, ambiguous, non-routine, and pressured tasks, it is quite challenging to achieve high levels of performance as a virtual team,” the authors wrote. “It is especially important in these more difficult situations to provide support and autonomy to virtual teams so they can work together well as a team.”
This underlines the importance of increasing the frequency of check-in-style conversations, especially for remote workers who may feel out of the loop. It's also important to ensure that some of these conversations happen face-to-face to allow for a more natural conversational flow. When performance is measured, it should be clear and tangible so employees know what “good” looks like and can make adjustments as required.
"Ultimately, success with managing hybrid teams will come down to trust and equity, as you will want to ensure that everyone has access to opportunities, is included in decisions, and isn't frozen out," Zanini concluded. "Hybrid workplaces offer the prospect of making work better and more engaging, but they also run the risk of deepening inequalities, so it's important that managers get it right."
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About the Author
I currently advise the European Institute of Innovation & Technology, am a researcher on the future of work for the University of East Anglia, and was a futurist for the sustainability innovation group Katerva, as well as mentoring startups through Startup Bootcamp. I have a weekly column on the future of work for Forbes, and my writing has appeared on the BBC and the Huffington Post, as well as for companies such as HCL, Salesforce, Adobe, Amazon and Alcatel-Lucent.