The global pandemic stresses workers and managers alike. Workers may struggle to find a suitable place to work free of distractions. Managers might grapple with the fear of managing employees they cannot see. Many managers never before managed people working in multiple disparate locations. The feeling of loss of control leads to some overly-invasive management practices. Managers can panic when someone is not readily available. The paranoid ones assume the employee is slacking off. This discussion will help managers and employees agree on an etiquette that works for all.

Shifting Focus to Work Outcomes

In my exploration of flexible work – AKA work from home, remote work, telecommuting – I’ve encountered many sub-optimal practices that drain employees’ enthusiasm and create resentment. Often they stem from a fundamental misunderstanding that workers will always be at their desks and available at a moment’s notice. This is inconsiderate and just plain impractical. The demands of everyday life require people to take breaks. Sitting is the new smoking according to health experts from the Mayo Clinic and The Heart Foundation. Selective sustained attention in healthy adults maxes out at 20 minutes. Thus, the probability that any single employee will be available at the precise second the manager wants to contact them is low. Managers need to shift their focus from immediate availability to measuring work outcomes.

One of the new, common practices that emerged during the pandemic is the daily check-in. Some jobs require a daily check-in to coordinate activities but for much work, this is overkill. When the work really doesn’t require a daily check-in, the result is lots of last-minute cancellations. This thwarts effective time management planning and is disrespectful to all. 

Workforce Etiquette

So what is the antidote to micromanagement based on the manager’s fear that people aren’t working? Workforce Etiquette: a code of polite behavior among members of a group that everyone agrees to follow. The team needs to develop this etiquette – it should not be dictated by the manager. It becomes the operating rules by which all team members will abide. Workforce etiquette is the foundation for agile – each team works out their best etiquette for being successful. Leaders (vs. managers) communicate expectations, acknowledge and share proven practices, as well as show concern for employees’ well-being. 

Workforce etiquette covers items such as:

  • Working hours and times
    • What are the normal working hours and in what time zone? 9-5? 8-5?  Is there a break for lunch at 12 noon or 1 PM? How long is the lunch break? Is this time available for other meetings or is it strictly reserved for the team members to unplug? Or is there no need for defined working hours?
  • Availability
    • Which hours during the normal working hours should team members be available on short notice? Hint: it should not be all of them. One organization I worked with designated 9-3 as the time team members needed to be available on short notice with flexible availability before or after that. Another organization based in the US decided morning availability was more important since many of its clients were based in Europe.
    • What is short notice? Hint: immediately is not an option. When someone is contacted, what is the expected time frame for a response? Is it 10 minutes, 15 minutes, or more? This decision is very dependent on the nature of the work. Much work is just not that urgent so the team should figure out what works for them. People can respond immediately in some instances but it should not be expected all the time. One manager I know has the habit of sending meeting invites for meetings that begin in 5 minutes. This sets up the suspicion that the employee is not really working if they don’t respond immediately or show up for the call. This expectation of immediacy keeps the employee chained to their desk and unable to effectively manage their time.
  • Communication and collaboration
    • What technology will we use for what kind of contact? Many organizations adopted video technology for team interactions but it isn’t always necessary for all interactions. A phone call or instant message might suffice depending on the reason for the interaction. I worked on a project with a colleague who was a fitness adherent. He insisted on getting in 10K steps a day. We had many productive discussions by phone that didn’t require either of us to be sitting at our desk in the office. 
    • On video, must everyone turn on their camera? Hint: no. While the ability to see colleagues is often very valuable and can increase understanding there are things I don’t need to see such as someone chomping on a sandwich or when they are in a place with a very distracting background.
  • Cadence
    • What is the proper cadence for the meetings? There may be different types of meetings such as a team check-in, individual-manager check-in, or project team status update. They will likely have different timing requirements. Let the team decide what works for each. This puts the employee in charge of their time and allows them to organize their day based on what needs to be accomplished. It also enables them to work on tasks when they are most productive. For example, I know that mornings are the best time for me to work on analytical activities that require attention and focus. In the afternoon, I can tackle tasks that require insight.
    • What are the norms around meeting cancellations? Hint: aim for at least a day before the meeting to avoid last-minute cancellations that waste everyone’s time. Another manager I know waits until the team is on the daily morning call then says, “we don’t have anything to discuss today so let’s cancel.”
    • How will the meeting cancellation be conveyed? A proven practice is to send an email and to remove the meeting from the calendar. When sending an email, be sure to copy any guests that may not be on the team distribution list. A bad management practice is not showing up for the meeting which forces employees to guess whether it is on or not. Yes, that happened to a colleague today. 

Pre-pandemic, organizations had the luxury of allowing remote work only in certain well-defined circumstances. Today and for the foreseeable future, working outside of a corporate office is the norm. The managers who will encourage the most productivity from their employees are not the ones who tightly scrutinize employees. Instead, the managers who support a balanced workforce etiquette that is respectful to all will accomplish the most and have the happiest employees. We’ll discuss why having happy employees is critical to organizational performance in another post.