Alongside the many inspirational responses to the pandemic we’ve seen from businesses and business leaders, here’s one that’s simply disheartening: micromanagement of employees in the name of maximizing their productivity.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, if businesses are truly focused on clear objectives, it shouldn’t be this way. We know that when employees feel trusted and empowered to do their work, they do their best work.

Let go of ‘command-and-control’

It makes sense that productivity is top of mind for business leaders at this moment. The drastic and wide-ranging shifts in how we get work done have created a lot of unknowns. Organizations that (for better or worse) previously relied on the old axiom, “We can only manage what we can physically see” have quite literally lost visibility into what employees are doing.

Understandably, leaders are grappling with what to do. Historically, productivity has been synonymous with time worked. Did my employees arrive early or stay late? In the virtual world, this thinking leads to questions like, “How do I measure my people’s throughput?” or “How do I know if someone is loafing?” But these questions don’t uncover the true path to success.

Instead, we need to think bigger—starting with the business’s or team’s broad objectives and creating touch points that intentionally cultivate employee alignment. Tracking employee productivity doesn’t help with this effort, and it can actually erode trust and collaboration on the way.  

This couldn’t be truer today, when so many of us have to manage our work and personal time in a much more fluid way to survive pandemic life. According to recent insights from my colleagues on Microsoft’s Workplace Analytics team, nearly 7 out of 10 employees are now experiencing work weeks that have expanded by three hours. So imagine how an employee would feel if they get “dinged” for not being in front of their screen at 3 p.m. due to personal reasons but have found they can (and want to) get work done at 10 p.m. Is their work somehow less valuable because it didn’t occur at the time you wanted it to? 

This is where trust comes in.

Trust and empower your employees instead

You might know it intuitively, but we know it empirically: Trust is an unparalleled force for good in the workplace. Research confirms that employees who feel their organization and leaders trust them are more likely to be engaged—and highly engaged employees lead to better business outcomes. The flip side is bleak but important to note. A recent study found that just 49% of HR professionals agree that employees feel empowered. This is especially critical in today’s virtual work setting. “Employees’ access to information in real time often puts them in a better position to make everyday decisions than their leaders,” the report states. “A lack of empowerment sends a very strong message to employees that ‘we don’t trust you.’ ” 

So where to start? First, pay attention to what your people are telling you—both in their sentiment and their behavior. For instance, a couple of months into the pandemic, we looked at approximately 5 million data points collected from employee surveys. Employees made it abundantly clear that they were worried about their workloads and, more broadly, grappling with how to continue getting their work done amidst the upheaval.

Meanwhile our colleagues at Microsoft Workplace Analytics found that, in the same general time period, an array of new workplace and collaboration behaviors, like the 30-minute meeting, exploded. In their study with 350 Microsoft teammates, they saw a 10% increase in time spent in meetings, while meeting duration got shorter. Without chats in the hallway or by the coffee machine, they saw 22% more meetings of 30 minutes or less and 11% fewer meetings of more than one hour.

Additional factors influence productivity and affect business success

Together, these employee-sentiment and employee-behavior insights suggest organizations can do so much more than track employees’ “time at computer” to help them get their work done in a way that fuels business success. 

For instance, employees’ connections at work play a critical role in not only achieving tasks effectively but also their well-being. Being well-connected at work means receiving timely information or access to resources and more expedient decisions. And in our new reality, employees are letting us know they need help forging or maintaining connections. Glint research reveals that employees feel 31% less connected to their leaders and 37% less connected to their teammates as compared to pre-pandemic life. This is a concerning gap because employees who feel their employer is helping them feel connected are three and a half times more likely to also feel their organization cares about their well-being, and almost four times more likely to report feeling well-supported. What’s more, employees who feel their organization isn’t facilitating connection are two times as likely to exhibit signs of burnout than those who do feel connected. 

Another part of trust and empowerment is flexibility. In this new world of work, flexibility is key as employees grapple with more meetings and personal responsibilities at home. Glint’s insights show that 60% of people want more flexibility in choosing their time of work. Meetings may start to take on the appearance of “Swiss cheese,” carved up throughout the day according to what works best for those involved. To make flexibility work, leaders should start with a clear definition for successful delivery of team or individual work, such as a clear timeline and documented roles and responsibilities. This approach alleviates uncertainty and empowers people to work at the right time for them.

Once you know what your people are telling you, help them respond, and then get out of their way. It’s a pretty straightforward process:

  1. Collaborate with employees to prioritize work
  2. Clear roadblocks and build connections
  3. Communicate frequently to make any necessary adjustments

When managers support employees, your people thrive

Ideally every level of your organization adopts these three steps. But, as is true for so much of organizational success, your managers play a key role in helping your people feel empowered.

Microsoft Workplace Analytics’ 2019 research revealed that approximately 80% of employees had less than one hour of one-on-one time with their manager per month. It is safe to say that is not enough time for an employee and manager to work together to efficiently prioritize projects and clear roadblocks. The good news: Microsoft Workplace Analytics’ newest research shows that recurring manager-employee one-on-one meetings increased by 19% since the start of the pandemic.

The insights from Microsoft Workplace Analytics remind us that consistent one-on-one meetings help to develop rapport between employees and their managers, and are an opportunity to discuss concerns, obstacles, opportunities, and strategic direction. Past research from his team has shown that employees who get twice the number of one-on-ones with their manager relative to their peers are 33% more likely to be engaged. Similarly, Glint’s research has underscored the importance of manager and employee one-on-one conversations.  

Managers can also have a multiplying effect. If employees are expressing meeting fatigue in their surveys, and if your workplace data is showing meeting creep (or, worse, full-blown meeting takeover) in employees’ work hours, managers can have an impact on whole teams of people by making a change to meeting habits. 

For that matter, look for ways your organization can go on offense by cutting red tape. I can think of no reason not to use this reset to take a hard look at how we spend our time. Are all the systems and processes you have in place adding value to your employees’ experience? Or are they dead weight? Again, this is where both your employee sentiment and behavior can inform effective streamlining. Start by asking your employees what prevents them from maximizing their time, and look for big structural blockers in their aggregate behavior.

Trust will set you—and your organization—free

I know the shift from employee productivity to employee trust and empowerment is scary. After all, we live in a culture that prizes busyness. But a focus on time-bound productivity is a shortsighted approach to talent management. The long game is a people-centric approach (we like to call it People Success at Glint), in which employers help their people be their best, and, in turn, people can (and want to) do their best work. 

So if you find yourself falling back on a control approach to productivity, ask yourself why. What is the business value of monitoring your employees’ every move? Why isn’t everyone instead focused on the outcomes that will make the business successful? 

Here are more People Success resources as you continue to reimagine the world of work.