Leading remote teams: how to navigate the conflict between productivity and privacy

By May 18, 2020 July 24th, 2020 Organizational Culture

For many professionals, the transition to work-from-home arrangements has brought repercussions far beyond small children interrupting meetings.  Around the world, work relationships and employee wellbeing during covid-19 times have unveiled additional challenges.

According to a news report by NPR[i], some employers are forcing their employees to install software on their computers which monitors not only the websites they visit, but also all every mouse movement and keystroke.  There are companies requiring employees to appear on webcam at all times during working hours; others demand that workers install a geolocation application on their cell phone in order to record their whereabouts throughout the day.

Monitoring company-owned computers assigned to employees has been a longstanding practice, legally permitted in most jurisdictions, where the law understands that the employee is using company property, and therefore must abide by the employer’s rules. But in times of telework as a predominant arrangement, the new monitoring requirements have resulted in professionals feeling that their privacy has been invaded, as they are now being “watched” inside their homes.

The justification used by some employers is that monitoring workers would lead to better performance and team effectiveness, meaning employees would supposedly be more engaged in their tasks.  There are even cases of people receiving a warning on the screens after a few minutes with no computer activity (when they went to the bathroom, for example), indicating that their time could be deducted should they not return soon.

Without exploring the legal aspects of this new practice – which can vary significantly depending on where the company and employee are located -, the effects of such practices reveal a lot about organizational culture, leadership, and employee experience.

When someone is hired to do a job, it is assumed that they have demonstrated not only the qualifications and competence to carry out certain responsibilities, but also a level of integrity indicative that they will do so honestly, with the commitment that the company needs.  A relationship of mutual trust is thus initiated; the same trust must be maintained when physical distance is required.  Leaders who do not trust their team members should ask themselves: “am I overreacting and becoming a micro manager? or do I have reason to be suspicious of this person’s commitment to the work?” – in the latter case, they must then ask themselves why they hired someone they could not trust. Or consider replacing them.

What can leaders do to ensure productivity when they are not sitting side by side with their team?

Good leaders have been adopting a routine of consistent communication with their remote teams, to show support, understand each individual’s particular situation in the face of the pandemic, and to make expectations and productivity goals clear for these extraordinary times.  They understand that it is essential, for the success of any mission, that team members feel they are heard and will be helped if facing challenges – and that they will also be recognized for their effort and engagement.

Evidently, supervision and guidance (probably easier to conduct in person) should continue in the virtual environment, but invading people’s homes and disrupting their domestic routine causes insecurity, impacts morale, and affects individual self-esteem.

There are smarter and more respectful solutions leaders can employ to maintain efficiency, promote psychological safety, and boost collaborative dynamics:

– Communicating goals and deliverables objectively

– Defining clear roles for each team member

– Implementing routines to periodically check the status of each objective

– Setting up regular one-to-one (virtual) meetings, but also leave the “door” open for spontaneous conversations

– Encouraging information sharing among colleagues through collaboration tools

– Scheduling events not focused on ongoing projects (such as a virtual lunch or happy hour), allowing team members to relax and strengthen interpersonal relationships.

In various industries, we are approaching the performance appraisal period, which is a crucial opportunity to measure the commitment and performance of each team member.  Personal challenges, such as family members who are ill or extreme childcare demands, should be taken into account in these assessments.  On the other hand, when considering employees who operated under equal conditions, their individual performance can reveal a lot about how they dealt with the routine of working remotely.  A competent leader, however, does not wait for a formal performance evaluation to offer feedback: they hold routine conversations; clearly established check-ins; listen attentively and maintain a genuine interest in each team member to help ensure engagement and productivity.

At the organizational level, companies are spending significant time and material resources to carry out a non-productive activity – monitoring employees.  Those resources could be allocated towards improving working conditions and enriching the employee’s experience: training programs, promotion opportunities and financial incentives will always be more attractive than surveillance and the threat of punishment.


[i] https://www.npr.org/2020/05/13/854014403/your-boss-is-watching-you-work-from-home-boom-leads-to-more-surveillance