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Working from home – now an established organisational norm – is fostering the development of remote management practices. But this new way of working may have an adverse effect on employees, ranging from uncertainty about whether they are trusted by their managers to the risk of physical and intellectual exhaustion. How do you find a happy medium without throwing your employees off balance? This is the central theme of an article co-written by four authors, including NEOMA’s Birgit Schyns.

How much progress have my employees made with the work I gave them? Will they meet the targets I set them? Are there any lingering inconsistencies, delays or irregularities? Monitoring these three issues on a regular basis is one of the fundamental tasks of a manager.

However, managers do not necessarily weigh up the impact of this monitoring on the well-being of their remote team members. And yet, there may be negative consequences if a manager makes daily requests for information – or even very negative consequences if they act unpredictably into the bargain.

When monitoring impedes autonomy

The article, authored by four researchers, including Birgit Schyns from NEOMA Business School, focuses more specifically on these psychological impacts. The research was based on two studies surveying a total of 450 employees working in UK companies. The first was carried out in May 2020 during the first lockdown necessitated by the Covid pandemic; the second was conducted in February 2022 when working from home had become a wide-spread corporate practice.

The key lesson was that day-to-day monitoring leaves teleworkers feeling that their managers have less trust in them. They have the impression that they have less autonomy and less control over their work. They end up wondering why their managers are making such frequent demands, which may leave them questioning their own ability and putting themselves down. At the end of the day, some employees feel physically and intellectually exhausted.

“Someone’s looking over your shoulder”

This phenomenon goes from bad to worse when a manager’s behaviour is unpredictable, according to the results of the first study carried out at the height of the Covid 19 crisis: the time of the requests changes from one day to the next, they ask for details or in-depth reports as the case may be, and the queries are ambiguous, unexpected and sometimes even disconcerting.

Here again, employees look for meaning in this type of behaviour: when they don’t find any, they are left with a sense of injustice or are fearful because of this constant feeling of uncertainty. Some workers even have the distinct impression that “someone is looking over their shoulder”, keeping them under endless surveillance.

The second study, on the other hand, did not identify this exacerbation – in all likelihood because the employees in the 2022 survey were more accustomed to working from home and had more stable points of reference.

Suffering in silence but in real pain

The article sheds new light on the dynamics between remote monitoring and the trust felt by employees. Previous research involved asking the question: “Do employees working remotely have faith in their managers?”

This is the first time that researchers have studied the opposite question: “Do these employees feel that their managers still trust them?” Suffering in silence, however, contrasts with the positive image we have of working from home, which companies see as a device for boosting productivity, and which employees consider a factor that contributes to their quality of life.

Unpredictable monitoring is like a form of “policing”

What practical lessons can managers learn from this article?

First, they need to understand that monitoring their employees who are working from home is no trivial matter, even if it is (needless to say) a necessity. Accordingly, the frequency and timing of their requests must be clearly defined (once a day is too much), communicated to the relevant employees… and observed. The ideal, of course, is to mutually agree on what these criteria should be.

Likewise, managers must ensure that their requests are consistent so they can avoid creating a climate of uncertainty that can easily feel like a form of “policing”. When inconsistency is necessary due to circumstances, the ideal is to let employees know the reasons for the changes and give them details of the new conditions.

This rule is even more vital if a company is struggling. As the 2020 study reveals, the more unstable the wider context is, the more a manager must be consistent and adhere to the rules set in their management initiatives.

An issue that leaders need to get to grips with

The last potential strategy for managers is to explicitly show employees that they trust them by taking every opportunity to delegate tasks and responsibilities to them.

The impact of remote management is so important that the authors recommend that business leaders should also tackle the issue. This role includes providing managers with guidance about their conduct and defining appropriate benchmarks for managerial behaviour.

Taking things a stage further, leaders can train managers on how to cultivate trust, and the importance of giving feedback to employees about the quality of their work. Last but not least, sharing best practices among managers can also help foster trusting relationships within a team.

Further reading

Xiaotong (Janey) Zheng, Karolina W. Nieberle, Susanne Braun and Birgit Schyns, Is Someone Looking Over My Shoulder? An Investigation into Supervisor Monitoring Variability, Subordinates’ Daily Felt Trust, and Well-being, Journal of Organizational Behavior, February 2023. DOI: 10.1002/job.2699

A podcast by Thriving at Work is also available! Episode 30 June: Stop Micro-Managing Remote Employees – Thriving at Work (workrbeeing.com)