When shelter-in-place went into effect in March 2020, companies around the world scrambled to adapt to remote work. Even the most tenured leaders panicked. Executives and managers alike were unsure how to best guarantee that their now-remote employees were staying focused, engaged, and on track to their goals.

Companies turned to remote workplace surveillance. They purchased spy software in frantic efforts to keep tabs on their remote employees. According to Gartner, a global research and advisory firm for enterprise executives, employee monitoring was already on the rise, even before COVID-19 forced millions of Americans to work from home.

Gartner’s 2018 report, which surveyed 239 large corporations, showed that a 50% were already monitoring their employees via their emails and social media accounts. Now factor in the fallout of the pandemic and it’s no wonder Brian Kropp, Gartner’s Group Vice President of HR, predicts 80% of companies to follow suit by the end of 2020.

But keep in mind— a method of management’s growing popularity is, by no means, any indication of its effectiveness or long-term success.

While the company leaders who leaned into remote employee monitoring may have had good intentions, they should be aware that those methods of remote management are destructive in the long run. Not only do they set the stage for the ultimate remote micromanager to arise, but they create a total breakdown in trust and create an adversarial relationship between management and employees on the frontlines. Should managers really be spending their time obsessing over surveillance reports and constantly pinging employees when their computer happens to be idle for more than ten minutes?

"Instead of panic-buying surveillance software, companies should focus on automating data and getting insight into the health and engagement of their team."

Senior contributor at Forbes, Tom Spiggle, says, “Workers are not robots. They won’t be working every single second of every single day, even when in the office. The practical reality is that workers will do non-work activities while on the job.”

The truth is that surveillance and micromanagement are both extremely detrimental to employees in a remote working context, especially when you consider how many of them are juggling new challenges and responsibilities, such as child care. It is company leaders’ job to recognize potentially harmful patterns and course-correct right away.

Every leader should, of course, be concerned with employee engagement, productivity, and happiness— but there is a better way to go about achieving those goals that doesn’t break down trust. So how do company leaders reconcile the reality of the dangers of surveillance and micromanagement with their  responsibility to make sure their employees are staying on track and successful?

Instead of panic-buying surveillance software, companies should focus on automating data and getting insight into the health and engagement of their team.

Performance management software allows leaders to get a read on their team, no matter where in the world they work from. It also helps them save time and avoid surprises. These platforms literally prevent micromanagement because they eliminate the need to check-in constantly. With easily accessible data, employees can see how they’re doing and then use those insights to inform their priorities. Managers can use the data to verify the numbers on an as needed basis. Managers can then move from "Command and Control" to the only real, sustainable way of managing a remote team— "Trust and Verify."

Data, Take the Wheel

Managing people has always been hard, and the move to a distributed workforce has made it that much harder. When you're in the office you get a lot of information for free. You can see when people are coming in, you can see how engaged they are— with you, with their team, with their work.

What managers need to think about is the fact that you can't physically observe how engaged your team is in a remote world. There are so many social cues and signals that humans are sensitive to, and good managers use those signals to develop their gut feel. They assess the patterns around them and then use that as a way to manage their team. But in a distributed, remote world, all of those signals are gone.

You can't even rely on your team's business hours as an indicator of engagement because people's schedules have changed. They have to adjust for childcare, taking care of their parents, or working from home while their family is asleep. You might have ten people on your team and each one of them has a specific situation that requires unique working hours, so you can't even rely on observing a 9-5 to assess if people are putting the work in.

"We should be automating [data] work as much as possible. Fast and effortless visibility into data and metrics is the remote manager’s saving grace."

The best companies and the best managers are forgoing gut feel and traditional methods of management and really rallying around setting data-driven goals.

Companies leaning into a data-driven approach need to look at both leading and lagging indicators. Leading indicators being goals of effort, input, or activity to ensure that the day-to-day system is working. Lagging indicators being goals of output or effectiveness. And contrary to what you might think— you don't have to be an all-star data analyst in order to make this method of management work.

Every year (sometimes every quarter) it feels like a new tab is added to your browser and a new set of reports is added to your already-growing team. It does feel like every manager is expected to be a data analyst as well, but that is a poor use of a manager's time— we should be automating that work as much as possible. Fast and effortless visibility into data and metrics is the remote manager’s saving grace.

Even if you find data analysis intimidating, there are simplified ways to make it work for you. Your company might report on 40 different KPIs or metrics and you might feel like you are responsible for all 40 of those, but there are probably three to five of them that matter the most. Leave it to the business operations team and data analysts to monitor all the other signals and discover new and interesting trends. The ability to hone in on important KPIs and quickly access and analyze them will return important time for you to focus on enabling your employees.

Action Item: Focus on Five

Ask your leaders, "Hey what are our most important KPIs this quarter and this year? What are the five things that we need to be really excellent in to be in a good position?" and then focus on those five KPIs or trends that you have confirmed matter the most.

Trust and Verify

Once you have set goals and expectations you can let the automated, accessible data keep your team on track, and you can refocus on the more high-level, human-centric problems. You'll be able to avoid micromanaging, which will pave the way for you to move from a "Command and Control" style of management to "Trust and Verify."

A trust and verify management style is truly the only sustainable way of managing a remote team. The alternative would be to forever rely on surveillance and micromanagement to get your job done— that might be a somewhat efficient short-term solution, but it's always going to be more destructive and demoralizing in the long term.

The first step is making sure your team has what they need to self-manage. Communicate expectations up front. Set objective goals where it's very clear how your team needs to perform. Set expectations on how they're going to get to that goal and in what amount of time.

And then? You trust them to hit those goals.

But don't be fooled, this approach to management is not 100% laissez-faire— this is where the "verify" part comes in. Through verification you are monitoring them passively by utilizing data to cross-reference and you are still checking in on them during 1:1s. If you notice something is going wrong or needs your attention— that's when you step in. You are always warranted to intervene when something is going off-course and it threatens your team's success.

"Your employees should be able to wake up in the morning and understand how they're doing, just like they check the weather."

Otherwise, you can step back, keep an eye on key metrics, and trust that your team is going to accomplish their goals. You remove obstacles as needed. You answer questions as needed. You coach as needed. Keywords: as needed.

The main point is that your team needs to understand exactly what you expect of them, what leadership expects of them, and what their goals are. The next step is to make sure every single person on your team can easily answer the fundamental question— "How am I doing?" That may sound simple, but for most employees, it’s not. It takes a lot of data work to actually answer that question. Your employee might say, "Give me 30 minutes. I need to refresh a bunch of reports and play with some spreadsheets and then I'll get you an answer." This is not ideal.

Your employees should be able to wake up in the morning and understand how they're doing, just like they check the weather. That is the first step in self-management— understanding where you are in order to get where you’re going. Once that has been achieved, leaders will be freed up to remove obstacles as they occur and coach people on how to achieve their goal faster, more effectively, or more efficiently.

Action Item: Democratize Management

Give your employees the ability to understand how they’re doing; make it easy for them to see where they stand— on any given day, throughout the month, and all the way through the quarter. Trust them. Allow them to manage themselves and, in doing so, make managers’ skills and abilities available to the whole of the organization.

Consider the Possibilities

Embracing a more data-driven approach to management is going to pave the way for success, especially in a remote world. It allows for flexibility, efficiency, and that coveted visibility that goes a long, long way. Automated, impactful data, just a click away, can shave hours off of leaders’ schedules. It opens them up to more pressing needs, thus connecting them with the employees that need them the most. Employees that, when empowered with information about their own performance, won’t need to make those calls for help unless absolutely necessary. Self-direction becomes the norm. Trust starts flowing both ways. The dreaded micromanager, never seen again.

Performance management software is the modern manager’s saving grace because it puts frontline employees in control. Now everyone has visibility into crucial data and can keep track of the results of their efforts. It eliminates the need to rely on surveillance and employee monitoring, and eliminates the dreaded micromanager altogether. It restores two-way trust. Verification is done without pinging employees and interrupting their work. With the right tools, remote management and leadership becomes seamless.

It is near impossible to thrive in a remote work environment, in the long run, unless you take a step back and let data drive.