The remote 'helicopter bosses' who stunt worker resilience

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Micromanagement has always existed. But remote work has birthed a new swathe of helicopter bosses, and workers are suffering.

Rarely does an hour go by without Alison, a software engineer, hearing from her line manager.

“If she sees my Slack status has been switched to ‘away’, then I can bet within the next half an hour there’ll be an email in my inbox checking how I’m getting on with a project,” says the 24-year-old, based in Bristol, UK. “We’re all required to attend a morning meeting every day where we’re asked for updates on what we’re working on – even though they’re often long-term pieces of work that hardly change from one day to the next.”

The micromanagement wasn’t nearly so bad when the team were based in a physical office, says Alison. But since the pandemic, the healthcare provider she works for took the decision to turn many of its technical roles permanently remote. “Even though we were busier than ever during Covid-19, which is when we went remote for the first time, my manager doesn’t seem to believe any of us are capable of getting our work done without her constant input. It’s infuriating.”

Micromanagement isn’t a new phenomenon, of course; there have always been bosses who keep close tabs on their staff. But as the increase in workers performing their roles remotely has fuelled insecurities in some managers, experts say the pandemic has birthed a new swathe of remote helicopter bosses: think helicopter parents, who hover over their children and constantly monitor them, but for the workplace. 

A July 2020 study in the Harvard Business Review, which surveyed more than 1,200 people across 24 different countries, showed that a fifth of remote workers felt their supervisor was constantly evaluating their work, and one-third agreed their supervisors “expressed a lack of confidence in their work skills”. They weren’t imagining things: the same study showed 38% of managers felt workers simply weren’t as productive at home, and 40% had low confidence in their ability to manage remotely. Even now, many managers are struggling to lead remote teams using the traditional tools they once relied on.

These remote micromanagers bombard staff with constant check-ins and calls, unnecessary Zoom meetings or overly detailed instructions. And experts say it’s doing significant damage to their employees. Remote workers who feel micromanaged by their boss are less engaged, less motivated and less capable than ever before.

Remote micromanagers have driven some employees to go to great lengths to keep their status lights as 'active' (Credit: Getty Images)

Remote micromanagers have driven some employees to go to great lengths to keep their status lights as 'active' (Credit: Getty Images)

‘We all want control’

Two leadership styles have increased since the switch to remote work, explains Katleen De Stobbeleir, professor of leadership and coaching at Vlerick Business School, Belgium. Neither, unfortunately, is positive. In one style, managers disconnect or even forget about their staff working from home, leading workers to feel isolated or alienated; the other style is the polar opposite: micromanagers.

“They’re constantly checking up on employees, and even pushing them to come back to the office,” says De Stobbeleir. They may book endless video conferences, insist on being included on every email or deliver ultra-prescriptive project briefs that give no room for creativity or independence.  

There are clear reasons for the increase in this type of overzealous supervision, believes Arielle Sadan, a New York City-based executive and leadership coach. “Micromanagement has always been an issue that’s primarily rooted in a lack of trust between a manager and their team,” she says. “When we’re in a remote environment, and a manager doesn’t have direct physical oversight of what their employees are doing, then that mistrust gets amplified,” she says. “We all want control, and for managers that aren’t able to see their employees, that can feel like an even more acute need.”

The spike in reliance on digital platforms and tools can make it easier for managers to peek over an employee’s virtual shoulder, too. Status indicators that show whether employees are in front of their computers can become a crutch for micromanagers, for instance. And for some employers, remote micromanagement goes one step further with the implementation of worker surveillance methods. A July 2022 survey from market-intelligence firm International Data Corporation showed about 68% of North American employers with at least 500 employees use some form of employee-monitoring software. Another September 2021 survey of 1,250 US employers from Digital.com showed that of those who said they used monitoring software, nearly 90% of them fired workers as a result.

We all want control, and for managers that aren’t able to see their employees, that can feel like an even more acute need – Arielle Sadan

Workers are feeling pressure. Alison says she’s ended up searching for ways to keep her Slack status as ‘active’ while she takes a coffee break, for instance, just to keep her boss off her back. Some employees are even investing in tools such as ‘mouse jigglers’, which keep their statuses active, in order to avoid productivity tracking.

Less engaged, less capable 

Of course, micromanagement isn’t always malicious by nature – De Stobbeleir underscores that some of these helicopter bosses are simply trying to reach out regularly to ensure a remote worker feels supported and connected. Similarly, most people like a little bit of structure and oversight from their manager, says Sadan (though the amount of “handholding” each employee needs certainly differs, especially among age and seniority, she points out). 

Yet regardless of a manager’s intention, experts say results of micromanagement are nearly always negative – for everyone. 

Attrition is, of course, a major concern – something particularly worrying to firms right now, as they’re still struggling to retain staff, in an ongoing swell of worker quits. “Micromanagement is a behaviour born out of bad management to a certain extent, and lack of wanting to relinquish control,” says Mark Williams, managing director for EMEA at WorkJam, which develops digital tools to improve productivity, and regularly works with companies whose staff accuse them of micromanagement.

The consequence is that “the employee feels undervalued, that their ideas and thoughts are not taken seriously. They become disconnected from the company and the brand”. In an era of remote work, this becomes amplified, as employees are already physically disconnected from a company and colleagues, and micromanagement only increases this sense of disengagement. 

Hovering bosses can stunt their employees' growth both in the short- and long term, keeping them from developing key skills to grow (Credit: Getty Images)

Hovering bosses can stunt their employees' growth both in the short- and long term, keeping them from developing key skills to grow (Credit: Getty Images)

Ultimately, this can result in an uptick in resignations. Micromanagement is easier to navigate in an in-person setting, explains Sadan, as there are less intrusive ways for managers to keep an eye on a project’s progress, such as strolling over for a quick chat which could be “interpreted as just being very supportive”. But in a remote setting, where micromanagement takes the form of constant emails or calls, the impact on relationships can be more significant. It creates “more frustrations and more anxiety in employees, and less motivation,” she says. “Ultimately, you'll see …  disengagement and eventually people will leave.”

But there are also longer-term effects that can follow employees throughout their careers. When workers stick it out in micromanagerial organisations, say experts, they’re less likely to end up capable in the long run. Micromanaged employees can end up without the initiative to carry out tasks independently, step outside their comfort zones and develop resilience in the face of adversity, explains Sadan. “An employee that doesn't learn the skills of being creative, to think critically and have the confidence to try something out will only want to do what feels comfortable,” she says. “So, their growth in the organisation is going to be more stunted.”

Micromanagers themselves end up with a big increase in their workload, too, points out De Stobbeleir. “Very often we see these leaders are very stressed, and very often feel they're doing work that others should be doing. As a result, they're not focused enough on strategy as they're stuck in operations, rather than thinking in the long term – which is very important in turbulent times.”

Learning to trust

As remote work has changed the workplace, this shift has left managers scrambling find new ways of interacting with their teams, such as how to assess good performance when they can’t physically see work happening in front of them. It’s a learning curve, says De Stobbeleir – and although the effects of micromanagement can be detrimental for workers, managers may also be struggling and coping in the best way they know how right now.

On the upside, De Stobbeleir believes as remote and hybrid work becomes the norm, helicopter bosses will likely settle down as they learn how to develop more trust with employees based off-site. 

Alison is hoping that’s the case. In the meantime, she’s attending the daily Zoom meetings and responding to the constant emails as politely as she can. She’s keeping up hope that, at some point, her manager will realise she’s more than capable of doing her job without constantly hovering over her shoulder. For now, it’s a waiting game.