Few people are as knee-deep in our work-related anxieties and sticky office politics as Alison Green, who has been fielding workplace questions for a decade now on her website Ask a Manager. In Direct Report, she spotlights themes from her inbox that help explain the modern workplace and how we could be navigating it better.
With so many people still working from home because of COVID-19, an awful lot of managers are freaking out.
Some managers just don’t believe that “working from home” means doing real work. They apparently assume that the second people aren’t being watched, they’ll jettison their work ethic and spend entire workdays binge-watching Netflix, even if they were previously trustworthy, responsible employees. These are the managers who, before the pandemic, would flat-out deny requests to work from home or only begrudgingly approve them for the occasional “good reason,” like waiting at home for the cable guy.
When vast quantities of people were forced to start working from home in March, these managers didn’t have a magical change of heart. Instead, many of them continued to believe that employees working from home aren’t really working or will only work if they’re carefully monitored—often in intrusive and insulting ways.
At Ask a Manager, an alarming number of people have shared stories with me of managers insisting on multiple detailed status updates every day, holding unnecessary lengthy daily team meetings (sometimes hours a day), and even requiring employees to keep their webcams on all day so they can be observed over video as they work. This account isn’t as atypical as you’d hope:
Like so many others, I am now working from home until further notice. Work from home was previously heavily discouraged and typically only allowed during snow days. …
We are required to check in and send updates on our work three times a day. By 9 a.m. we are required to send our direct supervisor a list of what we plan on working on each day. We are then required to check in at 12 p.m. and 4 p.m. with a report of all the work we have completed. … If we miss a check-in, we receive a text message reminder. There have been times where I am busy with a project and have missed the 12 p.m. check-in.
It seems clear in this case that all that checking in is making it harder for the employees to do their actual jobs. This one is pretty typical too:
I’ve been with my company 10 years. I was promoted to a new position in February, shortly before the pandemic erupted. Since mid-March, we’ve all been working from home. I already worked from home several days a week by choice, so I have a good set-up for it, am accustomed to its challenges, and am more productive and more comfortable here.
But my new manager is absolutely smothering me. She was showing signs of micromanaging before this started, but I think working remote really threw it into overdrive. She is insisting on daily video “check-ins,” in addition to our regularly scheduled meetings. I am now talking to my boss more than I am talking to my partner, my family, and my best friends. …
On top of that, we go through my to-do list Every. Day. … I’ve tried to mention that the daily meetings were not helpful for me, but she says she feels that it’s very important we stay in touch.
This person’s employer has gone so far as to require workers to install a monitoring program on their personal laptops:
We are working remotely for the time being due to COVID and have recently been asked to install an internet/computer monitoring program on our personal laptops. I’m uncomfortable with this for several reasons, but mainly I don’t want anyone to have access to my personal laptop and my private data. The software tracks activity level and app and URL activity, and it has a function to send periodic random screenshots back to the employer.
Some managers are upfront that they don’t think working from home is “real” work. One company has even attempted to reclassify work-from-home days as vacation time:
We are essential so our plant and warehouse have been operating, but we’ve sent our office staff to work from home, per the direction from public health officials. The management team told me today that they want to have anyone who worked from home during our state shutdown forfeit their remaining vacation days for 2020. Their rationale is that working from home is like being on vacation.
And it’s not just individual managers acting out. Some of this is coming from the top:
I work for a large organization, and when we made the shift to 100% remote work for eligible departments, HR handed down a list of requirements for managers. It included daily department meetings, individual meetings weekly or more frequently if possible, micromanagey level of oversight of their work, and the note that ”your employees may not tell you outright if they need support or accommodations, so try to get a feel for how they are managing their home life and health.”
I manage a team of 24 high-performing, autonomous, fully formed, adult professionals, who don’t need daily oversight in the office or out. I flatly communicated that I was not going to do this. Most managers are still following the list though.
Ultimately, the problem is that far too many companies have no idea how to effectively manage remote employees. Too many managers depend on the sense of control they get by seeing workers in front of them when everyone’s in the office—they’re here and I can see they’re not napping or watching TikTok, so they must be hard at work. When that’s taken away, they try to replicate it by monitoring people remotely. But monitoring isn’t management. Effectively managing people from afar means setting clear work goals and assessing people’s progress against those, not making them account for how they’ve spent each minute of their workday. (This is also what effective management looks like on-site! Good managers set clear goals and give their workers space to fulfill them, no matter where people are located.)
It’s certainly true that some people genuinely don’t do well when they’re working from home! Some people do need the structure and collaboration that being in an office with other people provides. But when that’s the case, managers need to work with those people individually to resolve whatever the issues are. There’s no need to paint their entire staff with that brush.
Employees have enough stresses right now without employers suddenly treating them as sluggards who will slack off at the earliest opportunity.