Now That I'm Remote, Can Anyone See How Hard I'm Working?

What can managers of remote teams do to discourage team members from playing the "presenteeism" game? We have a few suggestions laid out in this post written by Maya Middlemiss. 

A few weeks ago, we discussed the perceived challenge for managers of virtual teams of knowing that the work is getting done.

But there is a counterpoint to this situation, for the worker being managed, particularly if they are new to remote working.  In a previous role they showed up at a physical workplace, sat at a desk in view of colleagues, and participated in face-to-face interactions from water-cooler banter to formal meetings. It was abundantly clear that they were working hard every day.  Frowning at a monitor or banging furiously on a keyboard, closing a deal on a challenging phone call, or staying late to finish an urgent report - these were all the signs of a diligent employee doing their thing and making a contribution.

But if that team member suddenly finds themselves sitting at home, who’s going to see that going on?  Especially if they’re working on a lengthy project without visible milestones and outputs to feed back on formally.  Most of us aren’t used to sharing our successes out loud as a matter of course.

It needs thinking about, particularly when transitioning a team to remote.  How do people in the colocated workplace get noticed for their productivity?  Is there an emphasis on the wrong things, like presenteeism and long hours? In the knowledge-worker economy, it can be challenging to measure effectiveness and contribution anyway, even if you’re standing over somebody’s desk.  For example, it’s not helpful or meaningful to value an employee by the number of words written, if those words are nonsense and misrepresent the organisation.  This is why agreement of goals and outputs, against which work will be evaluated, is so critical - and this really is no different, wherever your direct reports are located.

And if you’re managing someone who suddenly can't see you, it can create feelings of vulnerability - how will they know that you’re aware of how hard they’re working? What metrics will be used to evaluate their success or otherwise, in their role?  How does she know that you know she’s not goofing off watching daytime TV in pyjamas, but still being the same productive team member she always was?

Easing the Transition and Helping Team Members Reshape Their Mindset

As a manager you can set expectations, create systems, and provide support, to enable your colleagues to shift painlessly to effective remote working - which is good for them, for you, and for the organisation.

  • Start with your own mindset, and an honest examination of it. It’s important to be sure that accountability concerns aren’t simply a projection of your insecurities about the new set-up. Any ambivalence about how you will manage their work effectively from a different location is going to show, so make sure you resolve any of your own issues with managing remote productivity first, before you project them onto your team.
  • Be very clear about the degree of accountability and ‘working out loud’ you expect from your newly-remote team member.  Are there specific core hours you expect them to be contactable and working, or is the work more results-oriented? Do you expect them to let you know they’re popping down to the post office for 20 minutes, or only diarise if they’re likely to be uncontactable for an extended period?  Being clear about fixed calendar points like meetings, will help stop people thinking they need to ‘raise their hand’ whenever they leave their home-working desk to go to the bathroom. (For more on this, see our post on Visibility in Virtual Teams.)
  • You may need to revisit specifics around how their performance will be evaluated, and structure accountability tools toward those indicators. The way you measure this in the colocated space may transfer seamlessly to remote, or it may need some tweaking.  And bear in mind that, other than in very specific professions, this rarely relates to anything about time spent on particular activities.

"Look at me and how hard I'm working!"

  • Nip in the bud any demonstrated tendencies to replicate the ‘presenteeism’ games of the office online. Replacing the ‘jacket on the back of the chair’ by a habit of checking-out shared documents ridiculously early in the morning, or replying to emails and IMs late at night, shouldn’t impress anyone. From a supervisory point of view, all it points to is poor time management skills in need of remedy.
  • Similarly, be ready to constructively challenge any emergent culture of martyrdom, where team members might feel the need to boast about their all-nighters or play games of long-hours one-upmanship.  How many hours each person needs in order to deliver their work is an individual management issue, and if this starts to become a public yardstick for success then there is something very unhealthy going on in the team.
  • Remember that remote working can greatly improve productivity and focus, especially on deep work tasks - so make sure your team members know that it’s actually fine if they get things done more quickly and efficiently than they did in the office, with all its noise and distraction.
  • Choose accountability and tools for working out loud, with care and a view to the work itself.  Some work roles lend themselves to quite automated systems, allowing you to oversee productivity on some kind of dashboard, as projects move through a typical cycle. Other things might need a bit more creative thought.  It’s too easy to wind up with a system which creates friction and adds to the work, such as remembering to update a shared document each day.  Apps like ‘I Done This’ are easy to update daily, but make sure it isn’t feeding that defensive ‘look at all the things I have done’ mindset’. No one should feel like they have to tick off a specific number of items, if they’ve spent the whole day (or fortnight) working on one big, intangible and as-yet incomplete project.
  • It can help to encourage the habit of working out loud, whether people are planning, creating or directly executing work.  If you use shared tools, for example a Trello/Planner board, it’s easy to maintain an overview of what you’re working on that anyone can examine if they want to see the status of something.  Also working in a shared environment like Google Docs/Word Online, combined with real-time chat in Slack/Microsoft Teams, makes it easy to see who is doing what.

Once your team members relax into the freedom and autonomy of remote working, they’ll probably be amongst the many who find it hugely liberating.  (If not, then look for alternatives - because a truly flexible manager should offer more than one option).  When objectives are well-defined, trust is maintained, and everyone communicates effectively and appropriately, they won’t get hung-up on needing to be seen to be ‘busy’ whilst working remotely. They can just enjoy being truly productive and effective.