Who’s The Boss? The Struggles and Benefits of Increased Independence

June 24, 2021

Struggles and Benefits of increase in Independent Employees

Who’s the Boss? The Struggles and Benefits of Increased Independence

Late in 2020, a senior executive I was coaching (we’ll call him John) had a troubling experience with one of the division managers that reported directly to him. John had established the targets and performance objectives for 2021 and had communicated them to each of the managers that reported to him. He recalled, “I assumed that they were fine with the targets for 2021 because no one objected.” It seemed everyone was embracing more independence in their scattered workforce.

Then in February, John was talking to a direct report of one of these division managers. While discussing one of the 2021 targets that John had established, the direct report of this division manager responded, “That’s not our target!” This employee then sent John a copy of the 2021 targets with revised numbers that he had been given by his division manager. The division manager had revised the targets but had never discussed the changes with John. In our coaching conversation, John lamented, “In what world do direct reports change the targets and not discuss this with their manager?”

An Independent Workforce

John is not the only one who has struggled with this hybrid workforce learning curve. When you have not seen your senior leader face-to-face for over a year, “who’s the boss?” A majority of the administrative and managerial workforce was sent home last March and told to figure out how to get everything done remotely. The miracle is that people figured things out quickly, and more than a year later, the results are mostly impressive. In the majority of organizations, productivity has improved rather than decreased. In addition, engagement and morale have increased with people working from home. And when asked if people want to return to the office, surprisingly, the majority want to continue to work from home, at least for part of the workweek. On the other hand, some employees are so committed to working from home that they say they would change jobs rather than return to the office.

Are Remote Employees More Engaged?

I wanted to verify this increase in discretionary effort during the pandemic. I looked at over 500,000 direct reports pre-pandemic that were asked if their work environment was a place where people wanted to go the extra mile. 75.8% of direct reports agreed or strongly agreed with that statement. The same item was answered by 12,879 direct reports in the pandemic, with 81.9% agreeing or strongly agreeing. The increase in discretionary effort is statistically significant ((T-Value = 10.167, Sig. 0.000) along with a substantial increase in overall engagement. It is clear from this data that employees working remotely were both willing to work harder and more satisfied and engaged.

An interesting thing happens when people work remotely with no one looking over their shoulder or watching what they do for eight hours a day. They become more independent.

Most people working from home have been highly engaged, and the time they previously spent getting ready and commuting is now often spent working productively. Working alone often forces people to make appropriate decisions without checking with the boss on every little detail. Most people working from home feel that they will hear about it very soon if they overstep their decision-making authority.

A Surprising Increase In Effectiveness

I analyzed pandemic data collected on leaders starting March 2020. What is surprising in the assessment of leaders by direct reports in the pandemic is that the overall perceived effectiveness has increased substantially. This study is based on 98,034 leader’s pre-pandemic and 2,820 in the pandemic. The assessment is based on evaluations from, on average, five direct reports for each leader. The graph shows the difference between the pandemic and pre-pandemic results. An improvement of 4 percentile points is not a massive shift, although it is highly significant (T-Value = 7.034, Sig. 0.000).

When you consider the difficulties and frustrations brought on by the pandemic and the shift from office to remote work, the fact that leaders working remotely were rated more positively is quite remarkable.

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What Have We Learned?

Having employees and managers who are more willing to take the initiative and act independently is, for the most part, a good thing right up to the point where they take too much initiative and act too independently. (Don’t rewrite the goals your senior leader sets and never tell them!)

As you consider some of the social movements that took place last year that ignited conversations about race, equality, and how government institutions are run, these are other excellent examples of people taking initiative and acting independently to bring forth change.

While some people may want to return to the “Good Old Days,” we have opened Pandoras Box in many ways, and many people like what came out. Most people crave to act more independently and to take more initiative. In his book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink breaks down motivation into three factors, Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose. These three elements are all needed for people to be successful at working remotely.

I have two observations from this study. First, the shift from office work to working remotely has generated positive outcomes for both employees and organizations. Organizations may want to be careful not to attempt to fix something that is not broken. Second, leaders need to make an extra effort to reconnect with their employees to make sure there is consistent communication and agreement on goals, objectives, and outcomes.

—Joe Folkman
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