Connor worked as a full-time graphic designer for a large marketing agency based in Los Angeles, California. Throughout the day, his boss would send check-in messages every two or three hours to track his and his teammates’ productivity.
He would send an imposing and foreboding, “What are you working on now?” If he didn’t like Connor’s answer, responses ranged from criticizing slowness to downright personal insults on laziness. Within a year at the company, Connor was gone—the fourth employee on the team to leave that year.
We’ve all heard stories—or experienced ourselves—of colleagues and friends who worked for terrible bosses, and more often than not, micromanagement is to blame. There’s no greater way to demoralize a team than Big Brother incessantly checking on employees’ productivity at every opportunity, waiting to pounce on them for any signs of non-work related activities.
Recent events have led to a new form of micromanagement that goes beyond the office and is impacting remote employees around the world. Let’s understand this new era of work, and why eliminating micromanagement is essential to driving business success for every organization.
The rise of COVID-19 employee monitoring
When COVID-19 struck, remote work transformed from a generous employee perk to business necessity overnight. Employees everywhere suddenly had their traditional in-office work schedules turned upside down. A Gallup poll shows that 63% of Americans shifted from office environments to working from home, all in under two months.
You’d think that with the widespread adoption of remote work, employees would have significantly more freedom from their previously strict nine-to-five work schedules. After all, bosses aren’t several feet away breathing down their employees’ necks waiting for projects to finish. Employees could strategize their schedules and work when they feel most productive. It’s every employee’s dream work scenario, right?
Sadly, for many employees, this isn’t the case. Micromanagement has taken on a new form in the COVID-19 era of remote work. We see this in the unprecedented proliferation of employee surveillance software such as Time Doctor, ActivTrack, and Hubstaff as companies around the world purchased these tools in droves as they sent employees home.
These apps are installed on employee computers to actively track employee productivity at all times. Some simply collect and report usage habits that help managers adapt their work-from-home strategy. Some, however, allow managers to remotely view their employees’ screens, and evaluate parameters such as lines of code typed, emails sent. Some even go so far as to automatically clock employees out when they’ve been away for too long.
An anonymous worker in Minnesota told NPR:
“If you’re idle for a few minutes, if you go to the bathroom or whatever, a pop-up will come up and it’ll say, ‘You have 60 seconds to start working again or we’re going to pause your time.”
Newly remote bosses are to blame
So what’s behind the sudden interest in monitoring remote employees’ every move? The pre-COVID-19 remote work landscape gives us a clue. According to Gartner, only 30% of employees had ever worked remotely or flexibly before the pandemic. That means 70% of workers had never experienced a consistent remote-work arrangement.
Both employees and managers entered the COVID-19 uncharted territory without any prior experience, and naturally, this leads to a lack of trust. As Alison Green, founder of workplace advice website Ask A Manager, puts it:
“Because [bosses] don’t know how to effectively manage people who are remote, they don’t feel like they have enough control, and they’re getting very anxious about accountability, and whether people are taking advantage of them, and they’re micromanaging.”
Because COVID-19 hurled so many managers into newly remote positions, their inexperience in remote work leads them to believe that employees default to slacking off when they work from home. As a result, they’ve turned to tactics such as forcing employees to alert them of every break, placing time limits on messaging and email replies, and installing screen monitoring software on employee computers that bosses can tune into remotely at any time.
Why remote micromanaging just doesn’t work
No one likes having managers constantly scrutinizing their every move like an Orwellian dystopia. Employees with micromanaging bosses are often paranoid and second-guess their work, leading to lower productivity and creativity. They live in constant fear of harsh criticism and retaliation from their managers for every little mistake. Most importantly, they feel that their managers don’t trust them—and trust is everything in the remote work world.
All of these negative impacts add up to one major result: low employee engagement. According to Gallup, disengaged employees have 37% higher absenteeism, 18% lower productivity, and 15% lower profitability. Moreover, disengaged employees have a significantly higher chance of leaving for better opportunities. After all, 57% of employees quit because of their bosses—not their jobs.
On the flip side, organizations with a highly-engaged workforce outperform their competitors by 147% in earnings per share. This is the combined advantage of higher productivity, retention, collaboration, and innovation.
Ending micromanagement through better communication
As many organizations begin to plan their business recovery and continuity strategies, extending remote work is one of the biggest options on the table. Leaders are prioritizing employee safety in the midst of a possible second COVID-19 wave, and keeping employees out of offices is the best way to do it.
In fact, a recent Gartner survey on 317 CFOs revealed that 74% of companies plan to permanently shift to more remote work post-COVID-19. Nearly a quarter of those plan to move 20% of their on-site employees to permanent remote positions.
Considering that remote and flexible work options are here to stay, there’s no better time for organizations to reevaluate their management and collaboration styles than now. Leaders have a tremendous opportunity to drive productivity by empowering employees to make their own decisions as they continue working from home. At the same time, organizations that learn to manage their remote teams effectively will be much better prepared to compete for the top talent in an increasingly remote and global workforce.
Learn more about managing remote employees in our post, 5 Qualities of an Excellent Remote Team Manager.
One of the best ways to empower your employees is by enhancing their ability to communicate from anywhere. Unified communications solutions like the RingCentral app combine team messaging, video conferencing, and cloud phone into a single platform, where employees can effortlessly communicate from any location and on any device.
With better communication among remote employees, managers can confidently trust that their teams have everything they need to collaborate and drive productivity. Together, employees and their managers can slowly eliminate the need for micromanagement and prepare for the increasingly remote workplace of tomorrow.
Originally published Jun 20, 2020, updated Jan 18, 2023