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Sonata Notes: Why Do Managers Distrust Remote Workers?

While studies during the pandemic have shown virtual teams are highly productive, many managers can’t shake the suspicion that remote employees are doing laundry or going out for lattes when they’re supposed to be working.  

So, should virtual managers trust their teams… or are they right to keep a closer eye on remote staff? 

Let’s start with the numbers.  

  • A joint study between the University of Chicago and the Mexico Autonomous Institute of Technology found virtual workers were on average 7% more productive during the pandemic (and studies from before the pandemic found virtual teams to be over 13% more proactive).  

    The most obvious reason for increased productivity is because remote employees can work any time of day, are less likely to call in sick, and don’t have a commute.  Studies found that virtual employees work 1.4 more days per month (16.8 days per year) than on-site workers and are 43% more likely to work beyond 40 hours per week.

  • Yet, in a survey of managers, 38% claimed remote workers are less productive, and 22% weren’t sure.  Distrust of workers runs so deep that, according to HubSpot, searches on remote worker monitoring software increased 72% during the pandemic.  

So, why are so many managers distrustful of virtual team members?  Sometimes distrust of virtual workers is a self-fulfilling prophecy.  Studies found that managers who are uncomfortable managing virtual or hybrid teams will often hold virtual workers to higher levels of availability and responsiveness than on-site workers, taking even a minute’s delay in answering a message as a sign of dereliction.  

But these unreasonable expectations can increase workers’ stress and disrupt their productivity, which distrustful managers take as confirmation, leading to more monitoring and micromanagement in a vicious cycle.  In fact, a University of Michigan study found that virtual team managers who take a “high trust, low monitoring” approach to accountability achieved 8% higher productivity versus those who took a high-monitoring approach.  Another study found 49% of closely monitored workers experienced high levels of anxiety on the job, compared to 7% of their less-monitored peers.  

So how can organizations help virtual team managers overcome their trust issues?

  • Provide training on virtual team management.   Managers’ lack of confidence in their remote workers often stems from a lack of confidence in themselves.  A study by Curtin University in Australia found 40% of managers had low self-confidence in their ability to manage virtual workers.  Providing specific training on how to manage virtual teams, including less invasive result-oriented approaches to monitoring, and educating managers on the potential benefits of remote work can reduce their anxiety.

  • Tell leadership to lighten up.  Studies found that virtual team managers who over-monitor and micromanage their staff are themselves overly monitored and micromanaged by senior leadership.  Organizations that don’t trust their managers can’t expect managers to trust their teams.  “High trust, low monitoring” needs to start at the top.  

  • Encourage monitoring among peers.  While virtual workers respond poorly to close monitoring by managers, they actually respond positively to close monitoring among their peers.  By setting up your virtual work environment in a way that promotes transparency among teammates – such as communicating via open chat channels, working in shared online documents, and having dashboards on progress and performance – can create positive, productive peer pressure.

  • If anything, monitor remote workers for burnout.  Virtual workers’ tendency to put in more hours can actually lead to overwork and burnout over time.  They also suffer from a lack of work/life boundaries, finding themselves checking their work email during a bout of insomnia at 3 am or responding to a work request while watching their daughter’s violin recital.  When managers are responsive to signs of stress and overwork among their teams and provide concern and support, that sort of “positive monitoring” can actually increase trust and help sustain productivity gains long-term.

If your organization is interested in strategic advice and training on remote/hybrid work, contact Sonata Learning for a consultation.

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Emil Heidkamp is the founder and senior learning strategist at Sonata Learning.  He works with NGOs, corporations and government agencies to implement training and knowledge management initiatives impacting thousands of learners in over 50 countries.