Executives and people leaders at startups and major enterprises alike have two main strategies of how to optimize talent in a remote workplace, by “empowering” employees or by “monitoring” them. Or in different terms, bottom-up or top-down. This is particularly important as startups (many of whom embrace a less formal office environment) decide how they are going to structure their workforces after Covid-19. Successful remote work requires trust between employees and their managers and between employees and the larger organization. Monitoring destroys this trust. I believe that employee empowerment is a better long-term strategy for employee effectiveness during remote work. Here’s why.
The knee-jerk reaction when the first Covid-19 restrictions were put in place was employee monitoring, which almost immediately damaged employee trust. According to an interview between SHRM and Gartner, almost 20 percent of organizations purchased some form of software or technology designed to track and monitor remote employees during April and May of 2020. This ran the gamut from virtual time tracking to measuring employee output, and even tracking how long people were using their laptops. The result, according to Dr. Ifeoma Ajunwa of Cornell University’s ILR School, was more employee stress and more time wasted worrying about the surveillance than actually getting work done. While monitoring can help businesses understand employee needs and guide company policy, it can easily erode trust if overused.
Global companies must also contend with data privacy regulations in multiple countries, and this monitoring software often crossed legal lines. UK banking giant Barclays was investigated for using employee monitoring tools and the EU-US Privacy Shield Framework was invalidated by the EU in part because the US government had such widespread access to user’s private data. Employee monitoring can land a company in legal trouble as well as negatively affect employee trust and productivity.
The alternative is an empowerment strategy. This approach, where management and leadership provide support and guidance to employees without looking over their shoulders, has been growing in popularity. HR departments have shifted more and more budget from “talent acquisition” to “talent retention” and providing resources to help their employees improve themselves. Research has shown that people stay at jobs because they feel like they are growing and leave because they feel they have stopped growing. This understanding of why employees stay, combined with the shifting attitudes of the millennial generation in favor of more coaching and personal development in the workplace, led to the rise of the empowerment approach. You can see evidence of this shift in thinking reflected in enterprises investing into well-being programs, and from venture capital investing in coaching technology between 2015 and 2020.
The difference between these approaches comes down to trust. According to our research at Cultivate, high-performing leaders tend to communicate in a way that creates psychology safety and trust. Leaders that demonstrate that they trust their employees and create a safe environment for them to ask questions, give feedback and raise concerns without a risk of reprisal will perform better and have more engaged teams.
A monitoring strategy shows that management doesn’t trust employees when they’re not physically in the office. Leadership calls all the shots; they are the one collecting data from their people and guiding them on what to do or intervening when things are not going well. In contrast, organizations using an empowerment strategy are saying, “we trust our people.” They give them their data and feedback and trust them to make decisions on their own. If you imagine a spectrum between complete empowerment and complete monitoring, I believe that companies that fall near the empowerment and trust end will see significant improvements in engagement, talent retention and remote employee performance.
One major way for employers to move toward the empowerment end of the spectrum is to invest in team-based tools. An example discussed by Stanford professor and organization psychologist Bob Sutton, is a remote team charter or “prenup”—a document that group members write together to spell out expectations and boundaries. Instead of rolling out employee listening programs (like pulse surveys) and work on macro-solutions (which are difficult to implement across global organizations), organizations could instead provide tools for individual teams to be empowered to change and adapt to dynamic work schedules and norms. Empowering employees at the team level and decentralizing people analytics to team leaders can drive change because it demonstrates trust.
Remote teams need more empowerment and less monitoring. I strongly believe that moving away from monitoring (which damages employee trust) and instead equipping leaders to build more trusting environments with their teams will increase engagement and performance among remote teams.