The onus of making remote work visible need not be on workers

Madelene Bernard

Madelene Bernard

Product Marketing
Visibility in the remote workplace

Remember when you had an important project due and you would sit at your work desk, completely focused on the task at hand, barely noticing the movement in the office around you? Remember how your team and superiors would quip in to check if they could help? Remember how, when the task was completed, irrespective of the outcome, your colleagues would appreciate your sincerity, and your managers and seniors would recognize your effort because they all “saw” you give your best to the task? This seemingly natural scenario is visibility at work – the ability to see and be seen; the appreciation, acknowledgment, and reward of an individual’s work by virtue of being visually noticed in a workspace.  

This visibility is critical, particularly for knowledge workers, since this is how employees know what work is being done in their teams and by their peers. Visibility is also the seed of motivation to stay dedicated and accountable to projects, the intrinsic motivator to knowing that efforts are valued and rewarded. Without visibility, it becomes difficult to give credit where credit is due, build professional networks, and help colleagues to navigate challenges and bottlenecks. 

The challenge of visibility in remote workplaces

Today, as more than 75% of the business world has adopted some form of remote work, visibility has become more crucial and less straightforward. In the remote workplace, where employees work from distributed physical spaces, peers and managers do not have the advantage of seeing what work is being done by an individual. This disadvantages the entire team’s dynamics; On the one hand, managers are unable to fully grasp the effort and time contributed by a teammate nor are they able to spot and preempt bottlenecks. They are also unable to evaluate performance, follow up on task commitments, or help their teams be more productive. On the other hand, employees are unable to showcase their contributions until a task leads to a successful outcome. In the meantime, employees are left overcompensating for the lack of visibility, leading to a myriad of short and long-term issues. 

The status quo in today’s remote workplace

As the world of work evolves to accommodate more remote workers, the systems and processes have skewed to let the burden of making work visible fall unduly on the employees’ shoulders. The common practice in today’s remote workplace is for employees to ensure that they keep their peers and managers informed about what tasks they are contributing to, diligently give updates on the smallest task changes, and stay active on all internal communication channels so that all project stakeholders can see their presence on projects. The status quo also fosters a culture of being “always-on”, with employees overcompensating for the lack of visibility by staying digitally plugged in at even odd hours of the day. In this environment, the insecurity of staying disconnected from the activities of their team members has led to about 80% of managers of large companies adopting some form of employee monitoring to get insights into what work is happening in their teams. 

The problem with the status quo

When the global workforce first made the mass shift to remote work because of the Covid-19 pandemic-enforced regulations, companies around the world were reporting astonishing figures of increased productivity, better employee experience, and positive business results. These results were in line with research from many decades of remote work practice that establishes the positive outcomes of the remote workplace

Burnout

However, these gains made have been seen to be diminishing now. Today, there is increasing evidence that the way remote work is enforced, with increased monitoring, lesser trust, diminished culture, and the stress of staying digitally available is taking a toll on employee well-being and engagement. In fact, 55% of employees reported lower productivity owing to the many stresses of the way remote work is practiced currently. The problem here is not remote work itself, but the many issues that compound from a lack of visibility: 

Culture of presenteeism

Employees and managers are entrenched in the natural presenteeism of the physical workplace where they could, without effort, see each other present at work. This presenteeism counted towards qualifying an individual’s effort towards tasks. Unfortunately, when teams moved to remote work, they did not apprehend the challenge of visibility and continued using presenteeism as a qualifier of work. In the remote workplace, this translates to employees staying unnecessarily active on communication channels, or participating in more zoom calls than focusing on tasks that might need deep work, or collaborating on high visibility projects and conversations rather than focusing on critical or long term tasks that might attract lower visibility. In essence, a need to make themselves visible forces employees to “seem present” rather than dedicating their focus to produce meaningful work. 

Disincentivized invisible work

In all teams, some work is traditionally highly visible to employees across the team, whereas other work requires siloed focus leading it to be more invisible to non-stakeholders. More commonly, work that is critical needs intense focus, dedicated creativity, and diligent brainpower. Such work is usually done by one or two individuals, over longer periods of time, and usually in isolation. These tasks are the ones that take place in focus rooms in most physical office spaces. In the remote workplace, employees that need to do such individual work are now being forced to participate in less critical but more visible work that can create the picture of them working. In effect, the onus of making themselves visible has led to employees removing focus from important tasks while focusing unnecessary attention on visible tasks, even if those are less critical to team success.

The problem of being always-on leading to burnout 

Always on

“I answer emails and attend zoom calls even before I am fully awake.”

“If I don’t respond to their messages, they might think I’m not working!”

“I keep my video on so that they can see me paying attention.”

A quick search on how to stay visible at work will throw suggestions that lead to such statements and these are statements most remote workers can, unfortunately, identify with.  The problem with these suggestions and practices is that it places an undue amount of stress on remote workers to overcompensate for their lack of being seen in a physical office space. Remote workers are working 15 hours extra per week and overcompensating by staying digitally plugged-in to the point of fatigue and burnout, all because they want to show their peers and managers that they are contributing to the projects at hand. This culture has led to worrying levels of burnout among remote workers, directly reducing employee performance. 

Unproductive communication 

The culture of presenteeism combined with a need to stay always-on has led to an increase in intra-company instant communication. What was once assumed to be more connectedness and collaboration is turning out to become only an unproductive communication attempt to seem present and available at work without leading to any meaningful connection or outcomes. More and more employees are sharing unnecessary, irrelevant, and meaningless communication that leads neither to better business outcomes nor to social connectedness.  

Context switching 

A digital workplace uses hundreds of tech tools and apps to get work done. Traditionally, employees would use a few of these tools for their core tasks and rely on a few others for auxiliary functions such as communication, collaboration, project management, etc. With the increase of the need to stay visible, employees are now toggling between tens of apps and tools to ensure their presence is marked in all these digital spaces. This has led to a case of loss in productivity due to context switching since employees are unable to give undivided attention to their tasks at hand. 

Overall poor employee experience

The constant stress of needing to make work visible, the exhaustion resulting from video communication and remote interactions, the anxiety stemming from knowing that all digital actions are being monitored, and the overall culture of fear and insecurity has led to employees burning out, becoming less engaged, and more apathetic to their work. This in turn leads to higher employee turnover and a less productive workforce. 

A better alternative for the future of work

So, what can leaders and managers do to combat these snowballing effects of poor visibility? Who or what should bear the onus of making remote work and the workplace visible? 

An inspired solution currently being adopted by digital workplace pioneers is to use readily available data from the digital exhaust from apps and tools used by their workforce. Digital exhaust from applications includes the trail of data left by the usage of these tools. This data is auto-generated, can be de-identified, easily and ethically accessible, and offers great flexibility for data mining and management in order to create factual operational visibility into teams, processes, and technology. 

  • Data-driven visibility facilitates managers to allocate workload that is fair and considerate of their teams’ existing work share, location/time zone, and past indicators of learning and progress. Such data-driven workload management prevents the need for employees to stay always on and allows employees to plan productive work time slots that can factor in their individual well-being, growth, and goals.    
  • Work analytics is also providing managers insights into their team’s productivity by creating visibility into how teams interact, identify gaps in communication, collaboration, or processes to inform training and development, and how processes and workflows can be optimized to support better team performance. Since the data is presented as easily consumable visualizations and since these dashboards are accessible by all employees, team operations are becoming more transparent and fair, which allows team members to rely on their productivity and performance rather than on creating an image of being present or engaged at work.
  • The bird’s eye view of workflows created by app usage analytics is also equipping managers to notice trends of context switching or app fatigue and preempting the pitfalls of such tool fatigue by structuring more focus time and deep work slots into their team’s everyday work schedules. 
  • In the modern work environment, where the employee experience and well-being are of paramount importance, workplace analytics can help managers identify signals of stress, exhaustion, burnout, or dip in productivity. This can equip managers with the necessary data to structure well-being programs, or employee experience programs to build more resilient and healthy teams. (More on how to manage burnout in your remote teams). 

We are witnessing the most accelerated and disruptive change to the norms of work we once adhered to. This disruption has given the world an opportunity to build a new future of work, founded on the principles of employee-centric operations, data-driven transparency, and an attitude of productivity-centered management. In this effort, a data-driven, factual, and human-centered approach will help managers and leaders succeed in building resilient, agile, and successful teams.

💡 Hatica enables engineering teams to maximize their potential by providing insights into developer productivity while also providing visibility into team engagement, effort, and well-being.

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