News & Analysis

Trust Issues – The Biggest Barrier to Remote Working 

The pandemic has forced most of the world’s workforce to work remotely. It also brings some unique people management challenges. A new research done by the Centre for Transformative Work Design (CTWD) shows that trust issues are emerging as the biggest barrier to remote working.

“While some jobs have proven adaptable, many sectors are not well-suited for the remote environment and many workers have home lives that present overwhelming challenges. As a result, some managers may be finding their roles more difficult than before — and making their subordinates’ lives more stressful as they struggle to adapt,” says the report. 

The study polled more than 1200 people in 24 different countries — working in industries ranging from manufacturing, IT, real estate, education, and financial services — including remote workers and their managers to investigate how Covid-19 is impacting both managers’ and employees’ work, well-being, and productivity with a focus on their pain points. 

What managers say

About 40% of the supervisors and managers in the study expressed low self-confidence in their ability to manage workers remotely. These findings suggest a lack of self-efficacy for managing remote working, with self-efficacy referring to the belief in one’s own ability to master challenging situations.

The study shows that four out of 10 managers agreed that remote workers usually perform worse than those who work in an office, and more than half of respondents – who were unsure – have rather negative views about this work practice.

Generally negative attitudes about this form of working seemed to spill over into the way managers’ perceived their own employees as well. Quite a few managers reported not trusting the competence of their own employees, with almost one third (29%) questioning whether their employees had the required knowledge do to their work, and more than one quarter (27%) agreeing that their employees’ lacked essential skills.

In addition, those managers who defined themselves as in non-managerial roles (such as technical or administrative roles), had lower self-efficacy for managing remote workers, more negative attitudes, and greater mistrust. For instance, 53% such managers agreed that “the performance of remote workers is usually lower than those of people who work in an office setting” compared to 24% of those in managerial roles.

The report mentions, “Altogether, the picture is not a rosy one, suggesting a substantial number of managers have low confidence in their capability to lead remotely, have rather negative views about this work practice, and distrust their own workers.” 

Even prior to the pandemic, managing teleworkers presented unique obstacles. Research shows that managers who cannot “see” their direct reports sometimes struggle to trust that their employees are ‘actually’ working. When such doubts creep in, managers can start to develop an unreasonable expectation that those team members be available at all times. This in turn leads to drops in employee motivation, further impairing productivity, ultimately disrupting their work-home balance and causing more job stress.

How workers feel

Do managers’ beliefs about remote work spill over to affect employees? Although it was not possible to link managers with their specific direct reports in this study, the analysis of the worker data suggests the answer to this question is likely yes.

Many workers also experienced a strong sense that their supervisor does not trust their ability to do the work. Thirty-four percent agreed that their supervisors “expressed a lack of confidence in their work skills.” Similar numbers reported that their supervisor doubted their ability to do the work, and felt that the supervisor questioned whether they had the knowledge required.

An even larger number of workers reported feeling that they needed to be constantly available, such as being expected to respond to electronic/telephone messages immediately, be available at all times, and be responsive after work hours. These results suggest the prevalence of an “always on” culture for workers at home, which is one that crept into many of our lives through the widespread use of ICTs such as mobile phones, and that has been shown to be prevalent in remote work situations.

Crucially, these experiences of home workers appear to have negative effects. The anxiety at work is greater for those workers experiencing high levels of close monitoring and a strong belief that their supervisor does not trust them. This impact of monitoring is a significant issue given mental health challenges during the pandemic.

From a productivity perspective, it is not logical to think that just because people are physically at their desk and closely monitored that they will perform well. Micromanagement is not an effective way to get the best out of people. Our findings show that the more a worker feels mistrusted, the lower their perception that they are performing their core tasks well, the report authors mention.

The ways forward

The research conducted during Covid-19 shows that a large number of managers are struggling with the effective management of people working from home. The result is, many workers are feeling untrusted and micromanaged by their bosses. The consequences of poor management at this time — for workers, families, and the economy — suggest the urgent need to help develop managers’ skills in this area. These results suggest that organizations much create change at the highest level possible as Parker and her team of researchers offer certain recommendations: 

Provide practical and moral support for remote working. Organizations need to move beyond rhetoric about supporting flexible working and actually enact this support by, for example, ensuring workers have the equipment needed, providing resources to support staff wellbeing, allowing extra leave for workers if needed, and giving training to support flexible working. 

Educate managers about the potential benefits of remote working. Existing research on teleworking shows that it can be more productive than office working, but the benefits arise largely because of the greater autonomy afforded to remote workers. Managers need to understand the work designs that need to be put in place to facilitate effective remote working.

Managers need to be trained in how to devolve job autonomy. They need to learn new skills of delegation and empowerment to provide their workers with greater autonomy over their work methods and the timing of their work, which in turn will promote worker motivation, health, and performance. 

“Sometimes managers confuse autonomy with abdication or abandonment of employees. Managers need to learn that autonomy doesn’t mean less communication with employees. Frequent and regular communication is even more important when employees have autonomy. But rather than checking up on people as a way to micromanage them, managers need to check in with people and provide them the information, guidance, and support to work autonomously,” the report suggests, adding that better quality management will improve remote workers’ wellbeing and performance.

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