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Sunday, August 9, 2020

Executive Education

For Leaders in COVID-19, There’s a Thin Line Between Accountability and Micromanagement

We can all picture the worst-case scenarios. An unmotivated employee rolls out of bed to log into their work server — and then promptly falls back asleep. A once-hardworking employee multitasks by playing a videogame during an important meeting, their lack of attention going unnoticed by their supervisor. A mid-level manager fails to check in with their direct reports and blames their inattention on technical issues.

For leaders who have spent their careers directing organizations from a corner office, the prospect of full-time work from home is challenging at best, and downright alarming at worst. Working from the in-person heart of an organization empowers you to develop a keen understanding of its pulse; you know every beat, and can identify when something is going well — or poorly. With this knowledge, you can offer hands-on encouragement, feedback, and instruction as-needed to keep your business and team aligned and productive.

But in COVID-19, “hands-on” leadership is all but impossible. The pandemic has made working from a central hub inadvisable; countless companies have shifted to fully-remote operations to protect their employees. But with that distance comes uncertainty — leaders don’t know for sure that their team members are productive at home. That lack of certainty (and trust) has driven some employers to take extreme measures to guarantee productivity.

At the start of May, NPR reported that America’s work-from-home boom had prompted an uptick in workplace surveillance. Employers want to know what their workers are doing and when, and some have deployed technology tools to find out. One NPR interviewee describes an Orwellian experience at work, wherein a third-party app tracks her activity and periodically takes pictures of her. If the surveilled employee is ever idle for more than a few minutes, she risks losing out on clocked time and pay.

These measures are extreme but not unprecedented. In 2019, researchers for Gartner reported that out of a pool of 239 large corporations, a full 50 percent were monitoring employee emails, social media accounts, and workplace activities.

“It looks like common sense,” management writers Peter Bloom and Caroline Clarke write for The Conversation. “Using new technology, it is now possible to better account for how workers are performing in their job and discover where their performance can be improved. […] Revealed is a new vision of management that combines this technological monitoring with coaching in order to “free” employees to become more productive.”

The vision they describe has taken on new importance in a time of social distancing. After all, the shift to remote work doesn’t always go well. Take Yahoo!’s experience as an example — productivity was so notably bad that CEO Marissa Mayer canceled the company’s flexibility policy. Who could blame companies for wanting to ensure that their employees aren’t taking a free vacation on their employer’s dime, especially now that roughly 42 percent of workers are currently clocking in from home?

No one could blame leaders for overcorrecting towards surveillance — but no one could celebrate that decision either. Ironically, virtual micromanagement is often toxic enough to lessen, not improve, employee performance.

“I just feel [terrible]. I feel like I’m not trusted. I feel ashamed of myself,” the employee interviewed in the above NPR article told reporters, referring to her decision to take a short break to talk to a colleague. “My co-workers were really, really upset. But everyone was too afraid to say anything.”

Research has demonstrated increased workplace surveillance can lead employees to try to protect themselves from invasive micromanagement, which in turn can escalate a cycle of coercive surveillance. As one researcher explains in an article for the Harvard Business Review, “a rise in managerial monitoring […] can be interpreted by employees as a coercive surveillance effort, fostering invisibility practices among employees that then lead managers to distrust their employees, allowing managers to feel justified in requesting even more surveillance systems.”

This mutual lack of trust is an issue in the workplace. Employees subject to monitoring tend to report increased levels of stress and avoid speaking up in fear of repercussions — both outcomes that drive dissatisfaction, create burnout, and decrease productivity.

Paranoid monitoring is clearly not the answer here. But perhaps there is room for compromise.

In a recent study for Gartner, researchers found that employees often aren’t categorically opposed to monitoring, provided that they know why their data is being collected and how it will be put to use. Gartner reported that a full 92 percent of workers are amenable to data collection on their activity, so long as it will be used to help improve their wellbeing or performance. Sixty-two percent of respondents also said that they would trade work-related data for better-customized compensation and benefits.

Employers can implement accountability measures without upsetting their employees — but they need to do so with transparency, respect, and understanding.

Before rolling out any monitoring tools, company leaders should figure out what they want to know and why. Do you want to home in on employee capacity? Are you looking for inefficiencies? Every “research question” you have will require a slightly different data collection strategy. If you blindly collect information for collection’s sake, you risk alienating your employees and prompting them to think the worst of your intentions.

Establish your intentions, reasoning, methods, and potential benefits beforehand, and then communicate them as clearly as possible. As one writer for Gartner put the matter, “When employees start to see that this data is being used to create a healthier and better employee experience, they will be more accepting of these approaches.”

After you state your intentions and outline your new policies, embark on a slow roll-out. Slowly incorporate tracking tools into your repertoire, and don’t lean on it overly much. While the data you collect should inform your management approach, it should not serve as the sole means of evaluation or the main driver behind important decisions.

Above all else, listen to your employees as you roll out new accountability measures to ensure that they feel heard and valued. If they provide feedback, take it into account as you fine-tune your data-driven management strategy. A business is only as good as its employees — so don’t alienate them with misplaced paranoia.

For leaders in COVID-19, there is a thin line between ensuring accountability and toxic micromanagement. Be careful as you walk it.


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Bennat Berger
Bennat Berger is a tech writer, investor, and real estate professional based in New York City. He currently stands as the co-founder for the NYC-based real estate firm Novel Property Ventures, as well as the sole founding partner for Novel Private Equity, a PE firm that specializes in guiding promising startups towards success. He has written extensively about the often-disruptive impact that innovative tech -- and, in particular, AI -- has on culture and business. Bennat Berger is an opinion columnist for the CEOWORLD magazine. Follow him on LinkedIn.