Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the global workforce saw a sudden and unprecedented shift to remote work. Supervisors had little to no training or plan for how to suddenly manage their employees remotely. Even when the pandemic ended, and remote work restrictions were lifted, many employees chose to remain as remote workers, leaving supervisors to figure out how to best to monitor their work.
THE RESEARCH STUDY
The authors of this study (Zheng et al., 2023) began their research during the initial COVID-19 lockdowns. They wanted to study how employees felt about their supervisors monitoring their work remotely and checking in with them, typically via email, video calls, or other messaging services (e.g., Slack, Teams). Using data from 191 participants, the researchers measured employee reactions to their supervisor’s monitoring habits over a period of 10 working days.
Results showed that the more an employee perceived that their supervisor was monitoring their work, the less trust they felt their supervisor had in them. When feelings of trust were low, the employees also became more exhausted and less vigorous. Conversely, when feelings of trust were high, employees reported lower levels of exhaustion and higher levels of vigor. Finally, the more randomness or variability there was in the check-in patterns, the stronger the feelings of mistrust and exhaustion.
To ensure these results were not influenced by the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic (e.g., global instability, higher feelings of stress and anxiety, etc.), the researchers repeated the study in February 2022, after restrictions had been lifted. Using data from 257 participants over 10 days, the authors confirmed their findings that employee perceptions of supervisor monitoring influenced the trust the employee felt, and their levels of vigor or exhaustion.
PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS FOR ORGANIZATIONS
Remote work is here to stay. With this new approach to work, supervisors need to reevaluate how they are monitoring and checking-in with their employees, lest they unintentionally cause feelings of mistrust and exhaustion, which can lead to burnout and turnover. Here are a few tips for how supervisors can monitor remote workers:
- Involve employees: Work together with your employees to create a set of procedures for check-ins and monitoring – whether it is once a week via email, or at the end of each day via video chat. Including employees in the planning may make them feel more comfortable and possibly lead to better outcomes.
- Stick to the plan and respect boundaries: Variability and randomness of check-ins and monitoring only exacerbate negative outcomes. If the frequency of contact needs to change, be deliberate and forthcoming – let employees know ahead of time.
- Talk to top level supervisors: Ask about developing or receiving training in how to build trust and provide useful feedback to remote workers. Remote workers have unique needs due to the nature of their working conditions, so new norms may need to be developed.
Zheng, X. (J.), Nieberle, K. W., Braun, S., & Schyns, B. (2023). Is someone looking over my shoulder? An investigation into supervisor monitoring variability, subordinates’ daily felt trust, and well‐being. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 44(5), 818–837.
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