Accountability in the WFH Age

How do you hold people accountable in a work from home environment? How can you “manage by walking around” in a virtual workplace? Will the accountability practices of yesterday work tomorrow? What is more important – how employees spend their time or what their time and effort produces? Let’s start by looking at past accountability practices and then move forward.

Influences from past accountability practices

Historically, managers have held employees accountable for one of two things: behavior or results. The early twentieth century was all about “Scientific Management.” Employees were held accountable for doing something, (behavior) in “the one best way” prescribed by engineers. Managers exerted tight controls in order to optimize productivity and the theory of Optimization was born. By mid century, research showed no evidence that tight control over workers’ behavior produced gains in productivity.

When we take away all decisions from employees, they no longer feel accountable.

Peter Cappelli, HBR article, “Stop Overengineering People Management”

In fact, evidence showed that under strict rules and controls employees held back effort. When managers began relaxing rules and regulations they saw productivity skyrocket. Employees felt empowered when they were involved in decision making and given freedom of movement. Managers focused on the end result rather than micro-managing how to get there. The theory of Empowerment was born and has dominated through present time.

The impact of WFH on accountability

It has been almost a year since the Covid 19 pandemic forced lockdowns and social distancing. There is a good chance that corporate America may not return to normal and bring all employees back to the office. In response, companies are investing heavily in AI, algorithms, and other “tattleware” to keep tabs on employees. Unfortunately, this represents a return to the controlling practices of Optimization. Perhaps it is time for a new approach.

An accountability system for the future

An alternative is a system built on trust – a system that is mutually beneficial for employees and managers. Managers will benefit from implementing a system that focuses on the product of employees’ knowledge, skills, and effort rather than how they spend their time. The first step in implementing such a system is for managers to answer three questions:

  1. Managers, what are the top three things your manager requires you to produce that contributes to his/her success?
  2. Managers, what are the top three things you require your employees to produce that contributes to your success?
  3. Managers, are the top three work products worthy of quality standards?

In the course of doing their jobs, employees produce tangible work products such as emails, reports, plans, charts, graphs, and presentations to name just a few. Managers routinely review these work products in the course of doing regular business. In this system, managers identify work products that have the highest impact on goal attainment, set quality performance standards, and hold employees to those standards. But if you can’t see your employees, how do you evaluate performance and adherence to quality standards?

Managing by walking around in the WFH age

Employees working in an office environment enjoy camaraderie with peers, experience a sense of belonging, and have access to their managers. The physical office environment provides advantages for managers as well, including enabling them to manage performance, make corrections, and monitor work quality in real time. Finding substitutions for the “water cooler” meetings and other chance encounters requires thought and effort in the virtual work place. Here are some ideas:

  • Opportunities to socialize:
    • Host virtual “I have an idea” meetings to encourage creativity and innovation.
    • Host “state of the team” or project update meetings to keep people in the loop.
    • Host a virtual morning coffee klatch or Friday happy hour just for socializing to help alleviate feelings of isolation.
  • Opportunities to promote accountability:
    • Set an example – produce well written documents and communications.
    • Schedule interim work product reviews rather than waiting until the due date.
    • Provide virtual learning events and require feedback from both employees and facilitators.
    • Praise specific accomplishments and provide constructive criticism to encourage development.

It’s easier to hold people accountable for big things if you already hold them accountable for little things.

Mitzie Adams, The Business of Accountability

The How to Achieve Business Accountability blog post series provides an in depth four step process for implementing an accountability system. Don’t hesitate to reach out if you have questions, need help, or would like a second opinion.

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