This is what remote workers say they really want (no, it’s not micromanaging)

Man sitting in front of a computer on a video call.

Hi, everyone. I’ve been spying on you.

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It’s like that moment when two people have been dating for a while and decide they both need space.

They’re still dating, but the terms have changed.

What’s she doing tonight when I don’t hear from her? Why didn’t he text me last night before he went to sleep?

What are we talking about today? Why, remote work, of course.

Many companies now want to cohabit again with their remote employees. 

Many remote employees have discovered they’re quite happy working remotely and eschewing the commute. And, well, the need to dress up and act as if they actually like their coworkers.

Also: Remote work or back to the office: Why the biggest challenges are still ahead

During the pandemic, too many managers joined the worst possible school of thought — The Academy of Micromanagement.

They installed surveillance software on their employees’ laptops. And, somehow, they still believe these employees aren’t being productive enough. Whatever productive really means.

Thankfully, wise brains have spent a considerable amount of time searching for solutions by researching deeper feelings.

Please welcome, then, Raghu Krishnamoorthy. He’s the senior fellow and director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Chief Learning Officer doctoral program.

With a title as long as that, you might imagine he can offer some learnings on the remote work management conundrum.

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Krishnamoorthy explained that while managers have been doing whatever managers think they do, employees have experienced significant changes in emotion.

The nuances are quite moving.

Also: Remote workers say they’re productive at home. Bosses don’t agree

“My key finding was a subtle but important shift in how employees expected their managers to work with them,” said Krishnamoorthy. “They wanted their managers to be present, hands-on, and operationally vigilant without being intrusive.”

So employees want their bosses to be hovering over them, but as unobtrusively as possible? Now there’s a balancing act that doesn’t come naturally, especially to bosses who are used to giving orders and expressing themselves in a self-empoweringly judgey way.

And now we come to the part where the modern, remote boss-employee relationship really does sound like the couple giving each other space.

“Employees don’t want their managers to micromanage them; they want their managers to micro-understand their work,” said Krishnamoorthy.

It’s fascinating how remote work — and the concomitant pandemic — has engendered a renewed consideration of the human spirit.

We talk more freely about mental health issues. And now, it seems, we want more of a meaningful human relationship with our bosses.

Perhaps it’s a yearning that’s always existed. Perhaps the changing nature of business — and the sudden onrush of full employment — has given employees permission to demand more.

Also: Remote work or in the office? Why the tide could turn again

Krishnamoorthy offers an uplifting sentence to describe the new dynamic. It’s one that might serve as a mantra for all those who still believe they can be excellent managers.

He says: “Micro-understanding is about trusting, but making sure there are no unanticipated bumps; delegating, but being there to keep workers from stumbling; and being flexible, but always heeding the warning signs.”

In essence, then, a fine manager has to be a finely tuned human.

Your remote employees are people. They want to be trusted, but they also want to be helped. They want to feel less constricted, but they still want to be managed.

And what do managers get in return? How about respect?

“My study shows that employees began to appreciate the role of the manager more while working from home full-time in 2020,” said Krishnamoorthy. “Having a manager was helpful, provided the managers shifted from managing time, activity, or physical presence to managing results and outcomes.”

So there, managers. You have your homework. They want you to care more, spy less, and flex your muscles even less than that. They want you to pay attention to what they do and how effectively they contribute.

Can you do it?

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