As the number of digital devices we use has risen, the blurring of boundaries between our work and personal lives have inevitably blurred, with the mass adoption of remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic shattering any divide entirely.
This has sparked a desire among employees to be able to switch off and not have to let work intrude into their personal time. Indeed, several European countries have gone as far as to pass laws providing this right.
Digital technologies were supposed to help provide people with the freedom from 9-5, giving us the autonomy to not only work when we want, but where we want. It’s the kind of autonomy that thinkers such as Dan Pink have long argued is at the heart of our happiness and engagement at work.
As various digital and mobile technologies have entered the workplace at scale, there has been a sense that this vision has not really been met. Historically, there have been grave concerns that remote working disadvantages people in terms of pay, promotions, and the best assignments. There has been a suspicion that the adoption of digital devices has been weighted in favor of the employer, with employees expected to be clocked on practically 24/7.
The pandemic has shifted what was once a relatively minor consideration into the mainstream. A sense of fairness now pervades our thoughts about this mass transition to remote work. New research from Lynda Gratton’s consultancy firm HSM highlights how important it is for this new world of work to be viewed as just and equitable.
“Managers are facing many dilemmas and questions around how they manage flexibility, how they acknowledge caring responsibilities, the role of automation for certain tasks, and home working versus office productivity,” Gratton explains.
On the clock
The pandemic has shone a light on just how far we still have to go to achieve such fairness at work. Not only have working hours risen, but we have also had a distinctly uneven gender divide, with women still expected to take on the majority of household chores, which have included homeschooling children while schools were shut. The autonomy and flexibility that digital technology has promised has yet to really translate into regular working practices that still have very clear expectations of when you’re supposed to be on the company’s time.
A new paper from Harvard Law School attempts to chronicle this transformation in our concept of working time. It sees the legal, social, and business literature assessed to try and propose a new model that fairly compensates us for any work we do outside of traditional hours. It’s a model that heavily relies upon the latest wave of smart surveillance technologies (yes, the kind of technology that has often made people concerned in the first place).
The researcher proposes using digital tools to intently monitor everything that people do, whether they’re in messaging apps, office tools, or communication platforms. Of course, when work isn’t digital in nature, it would require manual inputting, which betrays the fact that such an approach still seems to revolve around measuring inputs rather than outputs.
Rethinking performance management
It’s clear that legacy metrics are no longer useful in assessing a remote workforce. KPIs will need to be recalibrated to reflect a world that is inherently more flexible, with the boundaries between work and home life blurred like never before. The digital colonization of the home is not the right solution, even if the tools exist to do so, as this erodes the trust and transparency that are so vital to the kind of fair workplace Gratton highlights is so desirable.
If trust and transparency are present in the workplace, then monitoring can easily be viewed as a positive feature that helps to support the workforce. Without it, it rapidly descends into intrusion and exploitation.
It has also rendered age-old approaches like “management by walking around” and “open-door policies” redundant, as organizations across the world have quickly grasped how little they know about how well their teams are actually working together.
Trust is key
There is also a strong desire for monitoring to move beyond the periodical set-piece events of old and become a more real-time affair to allow for effective orchestration of effort. Whichever way managers decide to go, however, trust will be crucial, both in terms of managers trusting staff to work effectively and efficiently, and also employees trusting managers to behave ethically and supportively.
As with so much, COVID has in many ways exacerbated trends in performance management that were already visible. For instance, research published last year highlighted the digital transformation of performance management, with those organizations able to take a data-driven approach to people and performance management gaining a clear edge.
“The biggest cultural and organizational impact of next-generation performance management systems,” the report says, “will be feedback time, tempo, and impact. Instead of annual, quarterly, or impromptu reviews, talent- and accountability-oriented enterprises will encourage and enable near-constant feedback.”
The key to performance management across a remote workforce is to enable continuous feedback to be generated and acted upon. It’s only through better quality feedback that better quality outcomes are delivered. This has always been the case, but COVID-19 has really emphasized its importance.
For such a culture of feedback to emerge, there needs to not only be clear clarity between the assessments made and the subsequent development options for those being assessed but clear transparency to the process that allows trust and fairness to prevail.
There is clearly a lot of tension and uncertainty surrounding work at the moment. If organizations are to get the best out of their highly-skilled workforce, then it’s important that trust and fairness remain at the center of all they do.