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Like a Boss: “How can I enforce work hours and accountability with my remote team?”

July 2, 2020
By

Welcome to Lattice’s advice column for new managers, “Like a Boss.” I’m your host, Jennifer Romolini. I’m an editor, an author (of the career guide “Weird In a World That’s Not”), and, yes, a boss who’s been managing other humans for the past dozen or so years at companies both giant and tiny, at quick and dirty startups and multi-layered corporations, with remote and in-office teams ranging from five to 45. I’m also a speaker who talks about succeeding at work even when you feel like a freak. And, sometimes, I give advice, like right now.  

Dear Boss,

I’m a senior manager of a large team (we are multi-layered, with full-timers and contractors, about 30 in all). We’re all working from home right now (and will be for the foreseeable future) and I’ve been asked by some of my more junior managers if there are set hours and if they need to communicate a new schedule to their teams. When we were in an office, the hours were 9 to 6, with a no lateness policy. I think they should be the same anywhere we are — the work hasn’t changed, so why should the hours? I’ve had some managers ask to allow flexibility for parents, but is that fair to other team members who don’t have kids? If there are no set work hours, how can our teams work together collaboratively? And if I did loosen the schedule, how will managers hold their direct reports accountable?

Best,

A Time Micromanager


Dear Time,

You sound like a person who feels safest with a lot of order around you, one who believes that by sanctioning standardized work hours, you (and your managers) will have more control over employee productivity. While it may seem like your strict 9 to 6 in-office schedule yielded the greatest work output, I’m going to let you in on a secret: Just because a person is physically at work does not mean they are working. In fact, many of those mandatory hours that made you feel in control? They were spent online shopping, Slack gossiping, and sneaking out for a blissful, mask-free iced coffee (or two or three). 

And, if your employees were distracted during their time in the office (and trust me, they were), work from home — with its array of personal tasks and attention-needing pets/children/treats — is not going to make those mandated hours any more productive. But you know what it might do? Your inflexibility could make your employees feel resentful and unhappy in their jobs. In fact, in a recent study by FlexJobs, 80 percent of employees said they would be more loyal to their employers if they had flexible work options. 

Given this — along with the collective trauma we’re experiencing from COVID and a serious dearth of childcare — I’m going to suggest you change your thinking a bit. During this time, we all need to be more creative and adaptive to new ideas about the work day. Of course we should set goals and hold our teams accountable, but what does it really matter if employees are getting their non-immediate work done at 9pm instead of 9am? All this tracking of hours can be infantilizing and, in a time when you want your teams to be reliably autonomous, it erodes trust and loyalty. We need to, first and foremost, treat our employees like the adults they are.

As long as everyone knows the rules, doesn't abuse them, and keeps connected and accountable, there's no sense in having the same expectations you had before. Here’s what you can try instead. 

Create systems for asynchronous work

Whether you know it or not, you’re probably already engaging in some form of asynchronous work (loosely defined as any communication/collaboration where employees work together but are not present in real time). Email is asynchronous. Slack can be, too. As I type this, millions of employees across continents and times zones are teaming up in interactive docs and sheets and slides. You get the idea. 

Depending on the work you do, there are a number of project management tools that encourage — and allow bosses to monitor — asynchronous collaboration. Programs like Basecamp, Asana, and Trello can help you and your team set deadlines and keep on task, see who is currently working on an assignment and where that assignment stands. And even tools like Lattice allow you to stay on top of your teams’ and managers’ goals, work updates, and 1:1s.

Set mandatory “on” hours for synchronous work and collaboration 

Asynchronous can be great, but there are still some aspects of work which are better done in person (or as close to “in person” as a Zoom call can be). These include:

  • brainstorm sessions, 
  • meetings with multiple people which require multiple points of view
  • meetings that convey critical information where employees may want to ask questions in real time  
  • feedback sessions. 

Schedule time each week for your teams to connect live, to update each other on ongoing projects, to present new ones, and to address issues too confusing or sensitive to discuss over Slack. This will help you bring cohesion to your team and avoid the negative effects of siloed work, especially the sharing of whisper-down-the-lane information that may or may not be accurate. Remember it’s always better for employees to hear company news directly from the source.

Communicate monthly and quarterly goals

No employee can be expected to know what to do and where to go if they’re not given a map. Provide your managers with large-scale company goals and smaller scale team goals and encourage them to distill them into individual plans. Hold employees accountable by checking in on the status of these goals at least monthly. Update goals as needed. Rinse. Repeat. 

Check in consistently

It probably seems obvious at this point, but none of this is going to work without an abundance of consistent communication. Be reliable and create a safe space for employees to come to you with concerns. In addition to 1:1 meetings with your direct reports, keep regular office hours when staff members can ask questions, troubleshoot, or pitch you new ideas. Participate in Slack conversations, answer your emails in a timely fashion, let the people who work for you know you’re there. By showing up dependably you’re modeling the behavior you want to see and setting the tone for how you’ll all work together now. This will inspire more loyalty, spark better ideas, and enhance productivity than any punitive scheduling policy ever could.