Managers don’t trust their workers to work remotely and it’s destroying morale. Your leadership is essential for making home-working work.
A new study from Harvard Business Review suggests many managers are struggling to adapt to the unprecedented move to remote working resulting from the pandemic. Almost 40% of managers say they lack confidence in their ability to lead remotely, while nearly three quarters don’t trust, or don’t know if they can trust, their employees to work from home effectively.
Managerial mistrust and micromanagement have left home-working employees feeling anxious, unmotivated and unable to switch off. Here, HBR’s Sharon K. Parker, Caroline Knight and Anita Keller examine the problem and suggest solutions to make remote working work for everyone.
Sceptical managers are squandering the benefits of remote working because instead of empowering their staff to get the job done, they seek to maximise control. But it’s not necessarily those who are inexperienced at managing remote workers who’re driving mistrust and anxiety:
- Demographics. Male managers, under-30s, and managers in non-professional roles, have the most negative attitudes to working from home. Male managers are over twice as likely to mistrust employees’ competence, while a quarter of managers under 30 doubt their ability to effectively lead remotely. Managers in non-professional roles (e.g. technical) have lower self-belief and higher mistrust of their employees, with over half reporting a decline in work quality since the move to digital environments.
- Institutional Support. Managers whose own superiors are unsupportive or hold negative views about remote working, are much more likely to feel negatively about the ability of their staff to work from home. Over a third of managers feel employees lack the knowledge required to work effectively from home, while 41% of managers doubt the sustainability of remote working.
- Autonomy. Managers denied autonomy and subject to close monitoring and mistrust from their own bosses help breed a culture of negativity surrounding remote working. Managers replicate the actions of their leaders, learning to mistrust their staff and resist the shift to flexible working.
Managers who don’t trust their staff to work from home tend to expect to be in constant communication with them, and this has a profoundly negative impact on staff morale.
Impact on workers
As managers act out their own insecurities, workers take the flak and, as a result feel mistrusted, unsupported, anxious and expected to be constantly available as micromanagement and an “always on culture” takes hold.
- Micromanagement. Nearly a quarter of workers report high levels of monitoring from their superiors, leading a third of them to report their perception that their managers don’t trust in their ability to do their job. Workers in non-professional roles are subject to the greatest monitoring, heightening negativity towards working from home. Employee anxiety correlates with levels of monitoring, with over half of highly monitored workers reporting feeling often or always anxious at work.
- Always on culture. Nearly 40% of employees feel the need to be constantly available for managers and responsive after work hours. More than half of highly monitored workers reported frequent conflict between work and family demands. This is particularly damaging for employees attempting to balance homeschooling with work deadlines.
The more a worker feels mistrusted, the lower their performance, and the more managers disrupt their staff members’ work-life balance, the greater the mental strain on employees.
As a leader, you must act to resolve this situation. Here are some steps you can take to support your managers and help your employees to begin to reap the many benefits of remote working.
- Start at the top. Managers subject to low autonomy, mistrust and excessive control are likely to replicate this in their own management style. Stimulate positive change by offering senior leaders training to help them see the benefits of remote working, and to develop a more empowering leadership style.
- Make remote working workable. Move beyond rhetoric, and make the changes that will allow flexible working to flourish. Ensure workers are properly equipped, train workers to embrace remote working, support staff wellbeing, grant extra leave to those who require it, and demonstrate that your company is committed to making working from home a success.
- Educate managers about the benefits of remote working. Remote working can increase productivity, but only when implemented correctly. Low autonomy and rampant micromanagement will only hinder your company. Support managers in facilitating work designs that enable productive flexible working.
- Train managers to check in, not check up on. Train managers to grant workers greater autonomy over work methods and timing. Empower them to provide the information, guidance and support to work autonomously, without neglecting the importance of regular communication.
- Manage by results. Consider implementing a ‘results only work environment’. Grant workers the autonomy to work how and when they wish, so long as they get the job done in a timely fashion, and to the standard required. Trust workers to complete their tasks without constant checking.
Your leadership is needed now to promote remote working among sceptical senior managers, and to provide the training required so that all remote managers feel confident in their abilities to develop proactive, productive work-from-home teams. Empowering your managers to lead a positive transition to flexible working boosts staff morale, and helps create happy digital teams that reliever results.