We didn't need to wait for a pandemic to realise that some employers are more comfortable with the concept of remote working than others. Whilst some organisations seamlessly transition from co-location to online interaction, other companies prefer to stick to the more traditional approaches of dedicated desk space and working the nine to five.

One of the most common questions around this topic is, "How can I be sure that my employees are really working when working remotely?"

The honest reply to this question is that you can never be sure. Remote working hinges on a trusting relationship between employer and employee. It is a shift in mindset whereby the focus is on the output and not the time seated at one's desk.

Of course, an employee's trustworthiness does come into play. However, it is likely that the employee who is unproductive when working remotely is very likely the same employee who finds ways of not giving their 100% at the office. Work ethics are not subject to location. There is a level of commitment to the profession, to the team and to the company that defines one's professionalism. It is this professionalism that begets trust and maintains that trusting relationship.

Unfortunately, some employers still doubt whether they can rely on this professionalism and struggle to create a performance management process that functions regardless of the location of the employee. In order to deal with this insecurity, some employers resort to micromanaging - closely monitoring the work of subordinates, giving instructions on tasks which could be easily left to the team members' discretion and sending reminders for tasks that should be within the employees' responsibility.

The rule of thumb for any leader is that, unless an employee has given you any reason to doubt his/her contribution or professionalism – then such micromanagement is not only unwarranted but can also be destructive. It erodes at the confidence of employees as they wonder why they are not being trusted and what else they can do to merit this trust. It leads to feelings of anxiety because rather than the overall output or performance against set targets, they await drilling on minor and sometimes superficial matters which may not be of consequence. In the long term, employees who are trustworthy and professional, will feel suffocated by a micromanaging style of leadership and will move on. The ones left behind are typically the employees who work comfortably being micromanaged. They learn not to think independently and to do as told, rather than finding new ways of working more creatively and productively.

Trusting the professionals to do the work they do best, is therefore the cleverest strategy for any leader. However, this does not mean taking a back seat and becoming passive. Subordinates need guidance, support and crucially, clear expectations and goals. Leaders need to set the vision and roadmap on how the company will be successful and in-turn that translates to the goals and tasks of every team member. Management also needs to lead the performance culture of their organisation – what is acceptable and what is defined as slacking off? What are the benchmark standards and how would one know they are doing well? The culture also sets the tone for performance management practices such as 1:1s, appraisals, 360 reviews and the like. The frequency or level of formality of these practices is not as critical as ensuring that subordinates get constructive feedback to understand how they can improve and get due recognition to build confidence when they are acing their targets.

It is also essential that leaders take action on any team members that are not pulling their weight. After feedback is given and support provided, team members whose performance is not at par with that of their peers need to be addressed. It is common for unseasoned line managers to try and avoid such difficult conversations and bid time, potentially hoping that with time the situation would improve. But the truth is that this is often at the detriment of the team's morale. High performers enjoy working with those who have a similar work ethic and they look up to their leaders to take the difficult decisions when these need to be taken.

The crux of the matter is that when leaders perceive remote working negatively, it has less to do with the employees, but more to do with an inability on the part of the leader to manage people effectively. Remote working can be successful if leaders trust in the professionalism of those individuals whose output merits respect and adopt practices that ensure that poor performance is addressed promptly and effectively.

Originally published 20 May, 2020

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