A recent report from Microsoft acknowledges and puts numbers to something many of us who work remotely have felt in our guts: Many remote managers are thriving with work-from-home, while their employees are feeling more stressed than ever.
Microsoft’s latest white paper, The Next Great Disruption is Hybrid Work-Are We Ready? is full of fascinating insights into how the last year has treated workers and what the return to the office (at least for many people) really means. Two of the most honest things the report says are that 1) Leaders are out of touch and feeling much better about things than their employees, and 2) High productivity is masking an exhausted and rapidly disengaging workforce.
These two statements are closely related, and at the risk of speaking heresy, it is largely due to the inherent power imbalance between leaders (especially senior leaders) and the rank and file.
Why is this happening?
First, why are leaders thriving while others are struggling? According to the report, most of the leaders surveyed were white male information workers with an established career. This is almost the polar opposite of the workforce as a whole. Without generalizing too much, these folks are older than the majority of the workforce, so they likely don’t have young children in their daily lives. They have an existing network of people and relationships, aren’t shy about reaching out and communicating, unlike so many people they aren’t carrying the majority of the household duties, and they have more control of their time than they did when they worked in the office. Plus, they are more likely to take steps to manage their time and control interaction. On top of all that, they don’t have a commute or a dress code to deal with, many for the first time in their careers.
Compare that to the average young person, new in their career or new to the team. If they are young, they likely have younger, needier children sharing their space. New workers don’t have existing networks of people they can comfortably reach out to or institutional knowledge that saves them time or stress. More importantly, they feel like they have far less control over their time.
Put simply, when the employee asks for the managers time, it’s considered a request. The boss tends to make better decisions about whether or not this is a good time, and is more likely to pick a time that works for them. On the other hand, if the boss says, “Can we talk now?” most employees don’t consider that a question so much as a demand.
The Productivity Deception
That leads us to the second, more serious issue. One of the surprises of the last year is that employee productivity has stayed unexpectedly high during the pandemic. On the surface, that’s good news for the company. But it’s becoming clear that much of that productivity is coming through brute force, rather than excellent thinking or great processes. People are getting close to the same amount of work done as they did in the office, but it’s taking more mental strain to do so. At the office, we are allowed to “be at work.” Home and personal issues take a back seat for the length of time we are between office walls. Most information workers are putting in more work hours of the day than ever before.
Many workers are struggling to fit status meetings between home schooling, sick parents, and the grind of daily life during a pandemic. They haven’t yet learned how to manage their devices, and not the other way around. And driving all of this is an overwhelming fear that if they aren’t always connected, responsive at the exact moment a request comes in, or dare to let something fall between the cracks, they will find themselves unemployed.
What remote managers can do to help
Remote managers don’t, for the most part, share those concerns. In fact, they’re shocked when they hear how stressed their employees are or how tenuous they believe their job security is.
If you are a leader in an organization, take stock of what’s working for you. Then take the time for honest, one-on-one conversations with your people. Odds are that work habits and behaviors you think are instinctive (such as blocking time on your calendar and challenging meeting requests) seem impossible to those who report to you. Ask yourself what you’re doing (unintentionally one would hope) to add to people’s stress, and where can you help them through delegation, coaching, or technology assistance.
If you’re a team member, have a candid conversation with your manager about expectations surrounding response time and office hours. You may be surprised at their willingness to help. Some of that is because they aren’t aware of how all this is impacting you. Some of it will be simply that a burned out employee isn’t productive over time. Either way, they’re likely to be more empathetic than you expect.
There’s a lot to unpack in this report, and it’s a refreshing bit of honesty from a culture that always prided itself on its killer (figuratively, but barely) work culture.
All of this is part of the formula for building a great remote team. That starts with a group of individuals (including remote managers) dedicated to becoming great remote teammates. Learn how you can build that culture in your organization.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Co-Founder and Product Line Manager
Wayne Turmel is the co-founder and Product Line Manager for the Remote Leadership Institute. For twenty years he’s been obsessed with helping managers communicate more effectively with their teams, bosses and customers. Wayne is the author of several books that demystify communicating through technology including Meet Like You Mean It – a Leader’s Guide to Painless & Productive Virtual Meetings, 10 Steps to Successful Virtual Presentations and 6 Weeks to a Great Webinar. His work appears frequently in Management-Issues.com.
Wayne, along with Kevin Eikenberry, has co-authored the definitive book on leading remotely, The Long-Distance Leader: Rules for Remarkable Remote Leadership. Wayne and Kevin’s follow-up book, The Long-Distance Teammate, offers a roadmap for success not just for leaders, but for everyone making the transition to working remotely.