Covid-19 has thrust many leaders into remote management which requires a different skill set than face-to-face management. They have been forced to make this transition quickly, and for the most part, without training. While some jobs have proven adaptable, many sectors are not well-suited for the remote environment and many workers have home lives that present overwhelming challenges. As a result, some managers may be finding their roles more difficult than before — and making their subordinates’ lives more stressful as they struggle to adapt.
Even prior to the pandemic, managing teleworkers presented unique obstacles. Research shows that managers who cannot “see” their direct reports sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are indeed working. When such doubts creep in, managers can start to develop an unreasonable expectation that those team members be available at all times, ultimately disrupting their work-home balance and causing more job stress.
If we look at what is happening today and consider the many scenarios employees may be facing — especially those with compromised finances or families to care for — we can hypothesize that certain workers are struggling to perform at the same level as they did before, or at the least, are seeing some changes in their degree of productivity. This, in turn, could create a negative spiral in which manager mistrust leads to micromanagement, which then leads to drops in employee motivation, further impairing productivity.
To investigate this hypothesis, my team and I invited remote workers all over the world to participate in an ongoing longitudinal study that began mid-April of this year. We developed a survey of 92 questions to investigate how Covid-19 is impacting both managers’ and employees’ work, well-being, and productivity. Among other questions, we asked participants whether they have the opportunity to choose when, where, and how they carry out their jobs, whether work interferes with their home life, and whether they experience technological hassles. We also asked participants how they feel at work, in an effort to measure levels of engagement, emotional exhaustion, anxiety, or enthusiasm.
More than 1200 people in 24 different countries — working in industries ranging from manufacturing and science to real estate, education, and financial services — completed the first survey. We are currently following up with these people in subsequent surveys.
Our preliminary findings suggest that many managers are struggling in their roles, and would benefit from more support. As we suspected, our research also suggests that better quality management will improve remote workers’ wellbeing and performance.
About 40% of the 215 supervisors and managers in our study expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. Twenty-three per cent of managers disagreed with the statement “I am confident I can manage a team of remote workers” and another 16% were unsure about this ability. Similar numbers reported lacking the confidence to influence remote workers to do their job well and coordinate a team of remote workers effectively. These findings suggest a lack of self-efficacy for managing remote working, with self-efficacy referring to the belief in one’s own ability to master challenging situations.
A similar proportion of managers had negative views about remote workers’ performance. Thirty-eight per cent of managers agreed that remote workers usually perform worse than those who work in an office, with 22% being unsure (see the chart below). Though it is encouraging to see that not all managers who participated in our survey shared this belief, with 40% disagreeing, the fact that, together, more than half of respondents agreed or were unsure suggests that many still have rather negative views about this work practice.
Many managers were also dubious about whether remote workers can remain motivated over time, with 41% agreeing with the statement “I am sceptical as to whether remote workers can stay motivated in the long term” and a further 17% being unsure.
Generally, negative attitudes about this form of working seemed to spill over into the way managers’ perceived their own employees as well. Quite a few managers reported not trusting the competence of their own employees, with almost one third (29%) questioning whether their employees had the required knowledge do to their work, and more than one quarter (27%) agreeing that their employees’ lacked essential skills.
Altogether, the picture is not a rosy one, suggesting a substantial number of managers have low confidence in their capability to lead remotely, have rather negative views about this work practice, and distrust their own workers.
To understand for whom these beliefs arrive most often, and when, we explored the factors that drive them. While one might predict that managers who have more experience with working remotely would have more positive beliefs, experience was not a significant driver.
There were, however, some consistent demographic factors. Controlling for a range of other factors, men were more likely to have negative attitudes to remote working, and to mistrust their own employees’ competence. For example, whereas 15% of female managers reported that they lacked “confidence in their employees’ work skills in the past week,” for male managers, 36% per cent had little trust in their employees’ skills.
In addition, those managers who defined themselves as in non-managerial/non-professional roles (such as technical or administrative roles), had lower self-efficacy for managing remote workers, more negative attitudes, and greater mistrust. For instance, 53% of managers from non-managerial/non-professional roles agreed that “the performance of remote workers is usually lower than those of people who work in an office/work setting” compared to 24% of those in managerial/professional roles.
Younger managers were also more likely to lack self-efficacy for leading remote workers. Twenty-five per cent of managers under 30 years of age did not feel they could coordinate a team of remote workers effectively, whereas only 12% of managers over 30 years of age had this lack of self-confidence.
The wider context that the manager operates within was just as important as the demographic factors. First, for those managers who reported that their organization provides little support for flexible working, the level of self-efficacy for managing remote workers was lower. It seems that when a company is genuinely committed to flexible working, they provide practical support (e.g., training) and they convey positive messages of openness about this work practice (e.g., a willingness to be flexible about the specific arrangements), both of which appeared to increase managers’ self-efficacy for leading remote workers.
Second, managers who reported lower job autonomy in their own work, close monitoring from their own boss, and a high degree of mistrust from their own boss had more negative beliefs about remote working and greater mistrust of their workers. These findings suggest a social learning process in which managers learn how to supervise and treat their workers by observing their own managers. We believe this is because, when their own managers treat them with mistrust by closely monitoring them, they associate this behaviour with being a manager and replicate it in their own leadership action. In other words, we believe they start to think that close monitoring and micromanaging is what the organizations expect of them.
Do managers’ beliefs about remote work spill over to affect employees? Although it was not possible to link managers with their specific direct reports in this study, our analysis of the worker data suggests the answer to this question is likely yes.
We focused these analyses on the N = 617 workers who are working from home for four or more days per week. Quite a few of these workers reported very high levels of close monitoring. Twenty-one per cent agreed (with 24% being unsure) their supervisor constantly evaluated their work. Eleven per cent agreed (with 21% being unsure) that their supervisor/manager “keeps very close tabs on me by frequent checking.” Workers who reported high levels of close monitoring tended to be those in technically-oriented jobs (e.g., sales, labouring), consistent with our finding that managers with non-managerial/non-professional roles had more negative attitudes towards remote workers and greater mistrust of their own employees.
Many workers also experienced a strong sense that their supervisor does not trust their ability to do the work. Thirty-four per cent agreed that their supervisors “expressed a lack of confidence in their work skills.” Similar numbers reported that their supervisor doubted their ability to do the work, and felt that the supervisor questioned whether they had the knowledge required.
An even larger number of workers reported feeling that they needed to be constantly available, such as being expected to respond to electronic/telephone messages immediately, be available at all times, and be responsive after work hours. These results suggest the prevalence of an “always-on” culture for workers at home, which is one that crept into many of our lives through the widespread use of ICTs such as mobile phones, and that has been shown to be prevalent in remote work situations.
Crucially, these experiences of home workers appear to have negative effects. First, regression analyses controlling for a range of demographic factors show that anxiety at work is greater for those workers experiencing high levels of close monitoring and a strong belief that their supervisor does not trust them. For those workers reporting low levels of monitoring (less than 2 on a 5-point scale), 7% were often or always anxious when doing their job. But for those reporting high levels of monitoring (more than 4 on a 5-point scale), 49% were often or always anxious when carrying out their job. This impact of monitoring is a significant issue given mental health challenges during the pandemic.
Second, work-home conflict — such as one’s ability to work being negatively affected by the demands of children — is greater for those workers with high levels of close monitoring and pressure for constant availability. For those workers reporting low levels of monitoring, 26% reported their work demands interfered with home and family life. But for those reporting high levels of monitoring, more than half 56% had high interference between work and home/family demands.
This set of findings accords with existing research that shows that an “always-on” expectation increases work-family interference. However, right now, such an approach might be even more damaging because people are working in situations with additional pressures, such as children being in the house due to homeschooling.
Third, from a productivity perspective, it is not logical to think that just because people are physically at their desk and closely monitored that they will perform well. Micromanagement is not an effective way to get the best out of people. Our findings are consistent with this reasoning. They show that the more a worker feels mistrusted, the lower their perception that they are performing their core tasks well.
Our research conducted during Covid-19 shows that a large number of managers are struggling with the effective management of people working from home, with this translating into many workers feeling untrusted and micromanaged by their bosses. The consequences of poor management at this time — for workers, families, and the economy — suggest the urgent need to help develop managers’ skills in this area. Based on our research, we recommend:
It seems that during the Covid-19 pandemic, some managers are having a hard time adjusting to managing employees without “line of sight.” Hand in hand with managers’ struggles, many employees are feeling the negative effects of close monitoring and distrust from their bosses. The good news is that these managers can be supported and trained to manage their employees more effectively from a distance.
This article was originally written by Sharon K. Parker, Caroline Knight and Anita Keller. Sharon is an Australian Research Council Laureate Fellow, a Professor of Management at Curtin University, and Director of the Centre for Transformative Work Design. Her research focuses particularly on, job and work design and she has published in outlets, including Academy of Management Review, and the Annual Review of Psychology on these topics. She is a past AE of the Journal of Applied Psychology and a current AE for the Academy of Management Annals. Caroline is a Research Fellow at The Centre For Transformative Work Design, Future Work Institute, Curtin University, Western Australia. Caroline’s research interests focus on work design, job crafting, wellbeing, and performance, and she has published in several top tier journals. She received her PhD from the University of Sheffield, United Kingdom, in 2016. Anita is an Assistant Professor at the Organizational Psychology department, University of Groningen. She studies how work design interacts with leader and employee behaviour and well-being over time. Her work has been published in journals such as Journal of Applied Psychology, Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, and Journal of Organizational Behavior. Full credit goes to HBR, who published this article earlier this year. This article has been reprinted for the purpose of education.