Effectively managing remote teams that sometimes work across borders and span different time zones is something that the offshoring industry has been refining for decades.
But the last couple of years changed the way we work in unprecedented ways. Among other things, it has accelerated remote work adoption by at least 10 years. The COVID 19 global pandemic has left many businesses and organisations with little choice but to embrace remote working. This includes businesses that had zero to little experience with remote work before and were therefore unprepared to implement and support it.
How quickly and how smoothly an organisation was able to deploy a remote working programme became imperative for business continuity, as well as an important measure of organisational resilience.
Necessity truly is the mother of adoption. Ready or not, at the height of the worldwide lockdown, millions of people across the globe found themselves working remotely.
Even as we slowly but surely transition to a post-pandemic world, the changes in the modern workplace wrought by COVID are here to stay. Armed with the hard-earned lessons and gains from the last two years, we can clearly say that the future of work is hybrid.
Monitoring and Employee Morale
Despite its numerous benefits for both employer and employees, remote working comes with a host of challenges, particularly when it comes to individual productivity and performance. Employers are increasingly turning to technology to address the loss of in-person oversight, but not without detriment or pushback.
Workplace monitoring and employee surveillance tools are not new, especially in offshore teams. Admittedly, some industries and job roles are more used to it than others. But with hybrid and remote work becoming the norm across the board, we will see work-monitoring tech become more prevalent.
Monitoring and surveillance. The very words themselves are enough to evoke some “Big Brother is watching” angst, and understandably so. Nevertheless, a certain degree of monitoring is necessary to optimise performance and business processes.
It crosses the line from helpful to counter-productive when it engenders a culture of distrust in an organisation. This leads to poor performance and a stifled and disengaged workforce. It also weakens an employee’s sense of commitment to their role and loyalty to their organisation.
Now more than ever, trust is key. Trust, in an organisational setting, is the expectation that the other party will perform what is required of them. Managers need to be able to trust the integrity and competencies of their remote employees. In turn, employees must be able to trust that their employers will accord them their due respect and will treat them fairly.
This perception of fairness or the concept of organisational justice informs the employees’ job performance. When an employee believes that management is fair, they are more inclined to adopt the organisation’s values and take up the organisation’s goals for themselves.
How then do organisations toe the line on remote employee monitoring? How do they create a culture of trust and personal excellence, rather than a culture of monitoring and surveillance?
Engagement, Not Micromanagement
Well-oiled remote workforces and offshore teams rely heavily on technology, monitoring tools included. But technology is always a double-edged sword. Monitoring tools, specifically, can lead to micromanagement or even just the impression of it. The distrust implied in being micromanaged can be demotivating. Nothing crushes enthusiasm and creativity faster than micromanagement.
On the other hand, when employees enjoy a measure of trust from their managers and are accorded a level of autonomy in their work processes, they become engaged and more productive. They are aligned with the organisation when it comes to priorities and are generally more positive, energetic and better team players. The organisation’s goals become shared goals.
Employee engagement is not all about individual attitudes about work or the “company vibe”, it has concrete business consequences. Decades’ worth of research shows that employee engagement and business profitability are directly proportional.
Imposing monitoring protocols without employee buy-in is a serious breach of trust, and in some cases, illegal. On the other hand, getting your employees’ consent and active participation by being fully transparent about the purpose, procedures and extent of monitoring is an essential foundation of trust.
It’s not enough that employees are aware of how and why they are monitored, they must also be made aware of how the data collected from monitoring will figure in terms of their performance evaluation. Nobody likes purposeless monitoring.
Making work a “safe space” digitally ensures that employees won’t be harbouring niggling worries about being spied on, their privacy possibly being invaded or their data being used for something they are not aware of or did not consent to.
The onus falls on leaders to first, get employees on board and second, to find a balance between oversight and trust, monitoring and autonomy. They will need to evaluate which monitoring tools and protocols work best for their organisation and assess the impact it will have on individual employee performance and organisational performance.
Remote teams grapple with unique challenges when it comes to communications. Factors such as time differences, cultural differences and language barriers play a huge part, on top of differences in individual communication styles.
Some people are just better verbal communicators. Nuances may go unappreciated in emails and chats.
Leaders of remote teams need to be extra intentional about encouraging and enabling communications as there will be no opportunities for water cooler chats and team members will not be able to casually walk up to each other’s work areas to shoot the breeze.
Having both synchronous and asynchronous communication tools that are reliable, accessible and secure is essential. But they are only as effective as how they are utilised. A good rule of thumb for managing remote teams is to over-communicate. That doesn’t mean more meetings that could have been emails. Effective and meaningful communication doesn’t only happen in meetings.
Nevertheless, schedule regular catch-ups with your remote teams and consider adopting a video-first communication strategy. People love to rail about screen fatigue but, when done right, video calls do help team members establish real connections, intimacy and mutual trust.
People need to look each other in the eye, even if it’s through a screen. It goes a long way in dispelling the natural aversion to being monitored when we are reminded that there are human beings behind an organisation’s “all-seeing eye”.
Employees also need to feel seen—figuratively and literally—by their managers and colleagues. For some, it is essential to keep them motivated. Those who are new to remote working, especially, may feel detached, not just socially, but also from the resources and support they need to do their job if they go for extended periods without seeing a friendly face.
But even the staunchest of introverts need to feel visible in a workplace setting. For all its limitations, video communication is still the next best thing to face-to-face interactions.
Outcome, Not Output
The output is the process, and the outcome is the goal or the milestone. Good outcome points to good output, but the same cannot always be said for the reverse. One can meet the desired productivity statistics, but they don’t necessarily contribute to the desired bottom line.
Work is measured less by the process by which it is accomplished than by the results delivered. In short, it’s the outcome, not the output, that is more important. Work should always be able to speak for itself.
Some monitoring tools make it easy to capture output or quantifiable data, but it falls short of telling the whole story and it also does not account for individual processes and diversity in styles of working. When the focus of an organisation’s monitoring protocol is on taking random screenshots of an employee’s computer or on tracking their keystrokes and eye movements, it misses the forest for the trees.
On the other hand, focusing on outcomes or results allows employees to exercise some autonomy on how they go about their work. They are empowered and in control of their processes.
From a relational point of view, focusing on results helps managers course-correct quicker and get their team on track and offer support as needed. It also allows for leaders and their direct reports to develop a rapport characterised by mentorship, rather than robotic expediency.
Start From Trust
Monitoring may seem like the obvious answer to ensure productivity in remote teams, but is it the only or even the best answer?
Remote working presupposes a level of trust among team members and between managers and their direct reports. Trust is already inherent in the remote workplace culture, and culture is what makes a difference in behaviour and performance.
It is what gets your remote staff logging in at the beginning of every shift eager to perform their best, and it will show in your bottom line. It will be clear that high-trust organisations report higher productivity compared to low trust ones. Meanwhile, excessive monitoring runs the risk of eroding employee trust and cooperation, which dampens performance.
If you are confident of your organisation's recruitment processes and you hire well-vetted professionals, there’s no reason to begin a working relationship doubting your employees’ level of commitment, competence and integrity. Ensure that your employee monitoring protocols serve your organisation's broader goals and that you are not just monitoring your employees for monitoring’s sake.
Make trust the default. Hire the best people and assume the best in people.
Monitoring tools are simply that—tools. They will not take the place of managerial oversight and workplace relationships, which involves building rapport, mentoring and cultivating individual trust.
Unient provides a range of offshoring and outsourcing services for businesses as detailed at www.unient.biz. If your business requires expert consultation on creating an offshore team, or outsourcing software delivery, creative processes or administrative functions, we are here to talk.