Insecure Managers Spy. Caring Managers Seek Insight.

How do you give leaders clear insight into their teams’ performance and well-being without frightfully violating their privacy? With data.

Written by Alex Circei
Published on Feb. 03, 2021
Insecure Managers Spy. Caring Managers Seek Insight.
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Since the beginning of the pandemic, companies’ surveillance of remote employees has spiked. Bosses have deployed staff specifically to spy on their colleagues or insisted they remain on-camera while working from home. Tracking software like Hubstaff — which takes screenshots of employees’ screens and maps their location — has reported an uptick in demand.

While we rightly shirk away from these Big Brother stories that seem to come right out of a spy novel, we’re still left with an unresolved problem. Managers have a glaring shortfall in visibility, intimacy and consistency with their teams following the WFH shift.

Having insight is vital for business leaders to know when something has gone wrong — not just whether a deliverable is late but whether one of their team members is struggling at work or needs to be challenged more.

We need to talk about remote visibility without falling into the trap of remote surveillance. Insecure managers spy. Caring managers seek insight.

So how do we give business leaders 20/20 vision of their teams’ actual performance (and well-being) without frightfully violating their privacy or removing their freedom to choose how best to work? We can’t do this without the help of data. This can give managers both a high level and granular understanding of their teams’ workflow and well-being, while encouraging autonomy and individual development — all with less Big Brothering and a more hands-off approach. Here’s how.


1. Create Personalized Conditions for Talent to Thrive

Data can provide more objective insights into employee activity than could ever be gathered by a human. Armed with this data, managers can add a more human element to their leadership and better understand what their team needs to thrive.

When we talk about Big Brothering, it casts everyone in the same light and judges them by the same measuring stick. By expecting their team members to spend the same amount of time on a task or to be online during the same hours, managers ignore that all humans are at their best in highly diverse conditions.

Standard project management tools like Trello or Asana will, at their most basic levels, let teams know if a task is “done” or “in progress.” But more advanced solutions can tell you not only if people are working but how they’re working. That could mean: how a staff member’s commitment to different projects has shifted over time, how long a team is taking to overcome a particular bottleneck and how much information sharing occurs between teams.

Data from a visibility-focused management tool (rather than task-focused) is highly personalized, and it tells you about someone’s productivity based on far more than a single indicator. That means that, rather than comparing an employee to their team members, it can check them against their own past behavior. It can also tell if someone’s energy hasn’t dissipated, but just shifted elsewhere.

When it comes to developer teams, solutions like PivotTracker and Wrike give visibility into metrics like quality indicators and iterations on pull requests and help identify bottlenecks. Advanced Git analytics tools go deep into code-level metrics by measuring things like:

  • Code churn: code that has been rewritten or deleted shortly after being created.
  • Technical debt: how much refactoring code is done.
  • Impact: the amplitude of code changes that happen.

These tools provide granular insights into how teams are working through a project or particular task so managers don’t make snap judgment calls on surface-level metrics that don’t show the whole picture. By doing this, data insights allow for a more tailored approach by managers — in which they treat each team member according to their own needs, capabilities and development.


2. Give Everyone a Place at the Table

If managers don’t use data insights to understand the milestones reached by their team members — and who contributed and how — there’s a danger that more introverted employees will go unnoticed. This is especially important now that a lack of face-to-face contact means managers can’t see telltale signs that employees are feeling left out or uncomfortable.

It’s easy to see the achievements of workers who frequently shout out their own successes on Slack, but managers need a way of not overlooking the quieter employees who are adding a lot of value. One solution that can help with this is Culture Amp, which measures employees’ sense of belonging and how inclusive your workplace is using research-backed surveys.

With a clear understanding of how everyone in the team plays a role in creating company culture, managers can take specific steps to be more inclusive. This could mean involving those who feel more marginalized in higher-level meetings, challenging them to build their confidence or providing support in progressing their career.


3. Give People the Support They Need

Remote work is leading to higher levels of burnout than when people work in an office. A Workhuman pulse survey of more than 3,000 full-time U.S. workers found that over 38 percent of respondents have experienced burnout since the beginning of the pandemic, while 41 percent have had feelings of loneliness and isolation at least once a week. The usual friendly smiles, warm body language and water-cooler chats that create unspoken support networks tend to disappear when communicating primarily through email and messaging.

Using data here can help managers uncover how people are actually faring in the remote environment. For example, apps like StatusToday’s Isaak (which was recently acquired by Glickon) can tell you if an employee is being overloaded with emails by tracking communication traffic. They can pick out red flags suggesting burnout and indicate who might need more support and who has difficulty switching off. Tools like this ring alarm bells when necessary for managers — without giving them direct visibility into the content of employees’ communications.

Armed with insights into team member well-being, employers can check in with these individuals accordingly. They can also connect with their internal HR experts to discuss how to provide the support needed.


4. Give Employees Agency in Their Own Development

This may sound counterintuitive, but data-driven visibility into employee behavior allows managers to take a step back into a more hands-off monitoring approach.

By already being able to see which tasks are underway — and which ones may be bottlenecked — leaders know when it’s necessary to intervene rather than checking in constantly with their team members.

This allows staff to simply “get on with it” by not only promoting a productive workflow as interruptions are limited, but also by instilling a feeling of trust between managers and employees, which is proven to drive individual development.

Employees can also track their own performance. Self-determination theory states that, in order for people to develop intrinsic motivation in the workplace, they need autonomy. According to the Wall Street Journal, Microsoft tracks data on its employees’ meetings, chats and emails, as well as measuring productivity and work-life balance. Managers then show this data to some employees so they visualize how they spent their work week.

By providing team members with data on their habits and track record, managers can empower employees to become the driving force of their own self-improvement. They’ll also identify their own red flags such as overworking and unrealistic expectations; people can often ignore these problems when they’re being preached at externally. And because managers and their employees will be looking at the same data, they can evaluate the employee’s response to those red flags and intervene if necessary.

The world of work might have gone remote overnight, but there’s still a long way to go before organizations iron out the kinks that come with such a drastic transition. By prioritizing data-powered visibility to enable team connection, empathy and intrinsic motivation, leaders can set themselves up for remote work success.

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