What Happens Next Will Define Us

Photo of Home Office

Photo of Home OfficeAs we close out this long, exhausting year, a feeling begins to emerge that we are on the verge of a critical turning point. It is possible this feeling is fostered by a false sense of hope that we can put 2020 in the rear-view mirror. Or perhaps it’s due to an overly optimistic view that vaccines will be quickly distributed and adopted en masse. And yet, despite the highest daily recorded deaths due to the pandemic, many organizations are still pushing for a plan to return to the office. Last spring, many employers had to make tough decisions to lay off or furlough employees. People were sad, angry, and frustrated by these actions and claimed “when the economy rebounds, people will remember the choices you made.”

I agree. But I don’t think it will be the choices made in the spring that people will remember— it’s what happens next that will define us.

On a recent Science 4-Hire podcast, Dr. Charles Handler’s guest, William Tincup, asked an important question: “Will the new indicator of a bad manager be the ones who push for employees to return to the office?” One lesson we have learned through this sudden, necessary shift to work from home is that most professional work can be completed remotely. Certainly, there are some trade-offs with the experience, but overall, we are still capable of communicating, collaborating, and working efficiently beyond the structure of an office building. So that begs the question—why do we need to return to an office? Certainly, some managers may push for a return to the office for the enhanced camaraderie and team spirit that happens by proximity, but a manager who doesn’t trust his/her employees will always push for a prompt return to the office. What does that say about their ability to lead and effectively manage others?

The mark of mistrust doesn’t end with individual bad managers.  Senior leaders may be a bit more strategic and covert about their desire to monitor employee activity. Earlier this year, I started receiving a weekly email that analyzed my online behavior at work. The email assured me that the data is private and only intended to support my well-being. It identified who I was collaborating with, how much of my calendar was dedicated to “quiet time,” and how quickly I responded to emails. The report also included suggested tips like “maximize your focus by only checking email once per hour. When work is interrupted, it can take up to 20 minutes to get back into the flow.” At first, these tips seemed helpful. However, upon further research, I learned that while the email I received was private, employers with this system can view productivity data (including an overall productivity score) per employee.

While most employees understand that the work they complete on corporate devices can be monitored, few expect that they are being continuously monitored to this degree. Now, it is important to note that having access to productivity data isn’t inherently a good or bad thing. It’s what we do with that data that defines. For example, an employer may look across the organization and see that more work is being completed after-hours for remote workers than they previously completed while in the office. As a result, they may ask managers to refrain from sending any emails after 5pm in an effort to reduce the mental pull back to the workday. Leaders who see a sharp increase in the number of hours spent in internal meetings may respond by creating a No Meeting Friday policy to preserve focused working time.

But, for every instance that the data is used “for good,” we can expect a dozen more instances of poor management decisions. Managers who reference online productivity data instead of performance data during the annual review process will be the ones who are remembered.

Whether you’re asking employees to return to the office or seeking out additional data on worker activity, be mindful about the motivation behind your request.

  • Do you trust your employees?
  • Have you engaged and empowered them to be successful?
  • What are you doing to help support them and improve performance without directly monitoring their activity?

Be sure you’re asking yourself the tough questions before making a decision that will have a ripple effect for years.