As organizations settle into some form of temporary or permanent remote work, they must now grapple with the challenge of how to ensure their people are effective in this new employee experience. At the 30,000-foot view, there are two main strategies for how to optimize talent: by “empowering” or by “monitoring.” Or in different terms, they can use a bottom-up or top-down approach. In the immediate aftermath of work-from-home (WFH) policies and newly remote workforces, many companies swiftly moved to a monitoring strategy. But successful remote work requires trust between employees and their managers and between employees and the larger organization — and I’ve found that a monitoring strategy tends to erode this trust. Below I will argue that an empowerment strategy is a better long-term framework for organizations to maximize the effectiveness of their people in the remote age.
The reflexive strategy of many organizations immediately following WFH orders was a monitoring strategy. According to an interview between SHRM and Gartner, almost 20% of organizations purchased some form of software or technology designed to track and monitor remote employees during April and May of 2020. “It’s everything from technology that will take photos of employees from their laptops to tools that allow workers to punch a virtual time clock to tracking keystrokes to monitor productivity levels,” said Brian Kropp, chief of research in Gartner’s HR practice.
This surveillance has its downsides. “It becomes more about the worker being stressed out about surveillance or paying too much attention to the surveillance rather than getting the work done,” said Dr. Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s ILR School, in The Wall Street Journal (paywall). There are also grey legal lines concerning data privacy, especially for global enterprises that must deal with policies on data protection that vary by country. The recent invalidation of the EU-U.S. Privacy Shield Framework discussed on my company’s blog is one example, and companies as large as U.K. banking giant Barclays are being investigated for using employee monitoring tools. So while a monitoring strategy was the first reflex for many companies, it may not be built on a solid foundation of employee (or legal) trust; and therefore, can it be an appropriate long-term strategy to optimize talent?
A different approach to optimizing talent is an empowerment strategy. Even before the pandemic forced companies to grapple with remote work, an empowerment strategy was gaining traction. I saw HR departments begin shifting resources from talent acquisition to talent retention and providing resources to help their employees improve themselves. Research has shown that people leave jobs because they feel they have stopped growing.
This understanding of why employees stay, combined with the shifting attitudes of the millennial generation that Gallup highlighted in favor of more coaching and personal development in the workplace, have led to the rise of empowerment tools. This rise is evident in dollars, which we can see both in enterprises investing in well-being programs — almost half of workplaces surveyed have some type of health or wellness program, according to a 2019 study in the American Journal of Health Promotion (via the CDC) — and in venture capitalists investing in coaching technology like BetterUp. Now that people are more isolated, they can benefit from these empowerment tools even more. However, since the start of the pandemic, companies seem to have swung heavily toward monitoring instead. And while monitoring can help businesses understand employee needs and guide company policy, it can erode trust if it’s overused.
Why is trust so important? According to our research at Cultivate, the most impactful digital behaviors of high-performing leaders are behaviors that create psychological safety and trust. Leaders who 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 can perform better and have more engaged teams. But organizations that use a monitoring strategy place the trust in themselves. They call all the shots; they are the ones collecting data from their people and guiding them on what to do, or intervening when things are not going well. In contrast, organizations that use an empowerment strategy are saying, “We trust our people.” They give them their own data and trust them to make decisions. Many organizations fall someplace in between these two ends of the spectrum. But the ones that skew toward empowerment and trust could see significant improvements in engagement, talent retention and remote employee performance.
A tactical step for organizations to build trust and move toward the empowerment end of the spectrum is to focus investment in team-based tools and strategies. Empowering employees at the team level and decentralizing people analytics to team leaders can drive change. An example that Stanford professor and organizational psychologist Robert Sutton discussed (paywall) is a remote team charter or “prenup” — a document that group members write together to spell out expectations and boundaries. For example, to help with burnout, a crisis I’ve written about before, companies can deploy employee listening tools (like pulse surveys) and work on macro-solutions (which can be difficult to implement across global organizations), or they can provide tools that empower individual teams to change and adapt to dynamic work schedules and norms. The latter requires developing trust in team leaders, and in turn, those leaders developing trust in their teams.
Giving leaders the tools and strategies to build that type of trusting environment with their teams is exactly the investment that could lead to higher performance and highly engaged teams. But some companies are instead installing the type of monitoring that could negatively affect that trust in their organizations. It may be counterintuitive, but to create long-term trust in teams that are remote, companies should monitor less and empower more.
As Co-founder and CEO of Cultivate, Joe is focused on building leadership development and future-of-work technology for the digital workforce. In addition to leading Cultivate, Joe enjoys writing about workplace trends, teaching about startups and product management at UC Berkeley Extension, and occasionally running a marathon.