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Why remote work shouldn't mean micromanaging—and what to do instead

By Wade Foster · July 21, 2020
Hero image of a person on a video call

In March, a viral leaked email from a Wall Street Journal manager instructed newly remote workers to keep managers informed if they're "taking a break, conducting an interview, in a meeting, or will otherwise be unavailable for a while."

This is how you ruin remote work.

Managers might as well ask to be informed every time an employee takes a bio break, eats a Snickers bar, ties their shoes, sneezes, scratches their elbow, or tidies their desk.

I understand where the impulse comes from. Millions of people are working remotely for the first time, and managers are trying to adjust. Most are used to seeing their direct reports in person throughout the day, and think this gives them an idea of what exactly folks are doing with their time. But here's the thing. Good managers don't actually care what folks do with their time. They care if they get their job done or not.

Micromanaging does not work remotely—trust does

Remote work stops working when you can't trust the person on the other end of the line. This is why micromanaging how remote workers spend their time is toxic and counterproductive—you're basically admitting that you don't trust your people to get things done otherwise. And, even worse, instead of asking your team to report on their critical work, you go overboard and ask them to report on every little task, even the mundane and useless ones.

This lack of trust isn't just bad for morale. The instinct to micromanage, to ask employees to let you know every time they're not available, creates extra work for everyone. If you continually find yourself worrying about what someone is doing, then you're spending brain cycles focusing on something other than the product or your customers. That's wasteful, which is why remote managers need to build and earn trust.

Communication builds trust—and accountability

Micromanaging is detrimental. But managers and reports still need to be accountable to each other. Managers should set clear expectations each week of what their priorities are and what determines success. And there should be regular check-ins and systems for building trust and accountability.

We have a few rituals for this at Zapier. Managers start the week off by having one-on-ones with their direct reports. These are critical and everyone does them weekly—no exceptions. Regardless of where you work, your relationship with your manager is your primary connection to the company. This connection can't happen informally. One-on-ones are time for direct reports to share their priorities, advocate for their needs, ask for advice, and talk about their struggles. It's also a chance to get more personal. How are people doing personally? How can we still meet home commitments? Things like that. This kind of trust building is critical.

Then, at the end of the week, everyone publishes a Friday update. This is a weekly internal blog post written by every Zapier employee, outlining what progress was made on the top priorities of the week and sharing what their top priority is for the week to come. It's an easy way to hold people accountable without micromanaging. It also fosters transparency.

An example of a Friday update, with a top priority for this week and next
An example of a Friday update on our internal blog

These processes and rituals make sure the team is aligned. It becomes a cycle of momentum, which builds across the company. This is what works for us. You'll need to develop your own systems—ones that work for your company's culture. Just make sure you put trust at the heart of it.

Don't turn remote work into a scapegoat

Being thrust into a remote environment forces you to manage by outcomes rather than time-in-seat. Remember, you don't actually care if folks take a short break, join a meeting, or are in an interview, as long as the work is happening. Once you get used to doing this, you'll quickly ask yourself why you weren't doing it this way all along.

And, lastly, if you're struggling with something in this new normal, it's easy to point fingers at remote work. After all, it's the new equation for many of us. Don't fall for that temptation. Figure out if you have a business model, management, or communication issue. It's usually something else under the hood—not remote work—that's the problem.

This article originally appeared on Inc. Read the original.

Hero image by visuals on Unsplash.

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A Zap with the trigger 'When I get a new lead from Facebook,' and the action 'Notify my team in Slack'