Why Time Signals Still Matter When Working Remotely

Pay attention to the signals you’re sending about time when managing remote workers during the coronavirus pandemic.

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Why Time Signals Still Matter When Working Remotely

Managing remote workers is a challenge under the best of circumstances, but during the coronavirus pandemic, these challenges are amplified. Most people are new to working remotely. Many are juggling work and caring for children who are home while schools are closed. Others are cut off from key relationships and sources of support. Everyone is coping with unprecedented uncertainty and disruption. And everyone is anxious — about health, money, and the future.

There is plenty of advice out there about managing remote employees right now. However, much of it overlooks a critical aspect of shifting to virtual work: the loss of everyday signals about time. Cues about what people are doing with their time facilitate effective coordination and collaboration. When everyone is working in different places, these signals become less visible and more difficult to decode.

Consider a typical office environment: You can see your employees working and get a general sense of what they’re doing when. If you notice that Maria has been coming into work earlier than usual, you might conclude that she is really dedicated to her job or needs help with her workload. If you walk over to Jay’s desk, eager to talk about a new idea, but find him typing quickly with an intense expression and headphones on, you might decide that this isn’t the best time to interrupt. Instead, you decide to keep an eye out and catch him when he gets up for coffee.

These subtle but immensely useful time signals mostly disappear when working at a distance. Yes, it’s easy to track who is signed in to Slack at certain times or how long it takes someone to respond to a message. But these cues are more about appearing “on” and seeming responsive than about what people are actually accomplishing. Without important information about when someone might be open to interruption or if they feel pressed for time, managers can’t delegate and coordinate work as smoothly — and they may fail to notice issues that hinder efficiency and collaboration.

Employees themselves tend to feel anxious working without the time signals they’re used to. Because they’re not as visible, employees look for ways to demonstrate that they’re engaged and available. They might assume that they need to make themselves more reachable and responsive than before the move to virtual work, perhaps by working longer hours and replying more quickly to emails. But if managers don’t explicitly address employees’ assumptions about time signals, it becomes harder for people to focus and get work done. Employees spend more time online proving they are “there” and less time working productively, which makes coping with their individual needs and circumstances even harder.

Our years of research — on how people send time signals and interpret each other’s signals at work, in both office and virtual settings — show that people don’t make independent choices about what they do with their time. Their choices are influenced heavily by the people they work with — especially their managers. If their manager stays late in the office, employees believe they too are expected to work longer hours; if their manager regularly takes a break for lunch, employees feel they can do the same.

Right now, more than ever, managers need to recognize that they play a key role in setting expectations about time. Their time signals have a significant impact on their employees’ work hours, flexibility, and well-being. Here are eight specific tips for managers navigating the sudden shift to remote work:

  1. Pay attention to output, not time. Judge what people do, not how quickly they respond to an email or how often they are on Slack. Focus on what they are producing. Is it high quality? Does it meet the standards you set? Tell your employees that you trust them to get their work done within a reasonable time frame. Be clear about which tasks are essential and which can fall by the wayside for now. Set well-defined goals and deadlines, specify times to check in and discuss progress, and allow employees to get their work done flexibly. Keep in mind that some employees will need to shift and/or compress their work hours due to increased personal responsibilities.
  2. Explicitly discuss time. Make a regular practice of doing informal one-on-one check-ins with employees to get a sense of their individual time needs, burdens, and pressures. Be empathetic about their personal situations and help brainstorm solutions. Also, use this opportunity to explain your expectations about time and responsiveness during the pandemic. Be open about what has shifted for you: What new activities or responsibilities have become interspersed with your work time? Sharing your own constraints and adjustments assures your employees that they can tell you about their struggles with time.
  3. Support your employees’ boundaries and signal your own. Knowing when to start and put aside work can be difficult for remote employees, particularly when they haven’t worked from home before. Model boundaries by noting when you are “in the office” and ready for business, and tell people when you are “going home for the day.” This will help reassure employees that you don’t expect them to suddenly start working 24-7. But stay attuned to individual circumstances: Some people may need to work earlier or later than usual, especially if they are juggling commitments such as child care or home schooling. Signal your own boundaries, but be clear that others may need to — and can — set boundaries differently.
  4. Refrain, when possible, from sending communications outside of standard work hours. If you must send a late-night email, make it clear whether you need an immediate response; if not, state that people should wait until the morning to reply. Even better, get your email client to schedule messages so that anything nonurgent gets sent only during normal work hours. Be explicit that you do not expect people to monitor messages more than usual.
  5. Rethink language about rapidity. If you tend to use language like “thanks for getting back to me so quickly” in your email responses, consider whether praising rapid responsiveness makes sense right now. Was it really necessary for the person to get back to you quickly? If not, why was this behavior rewarded? Everything you say to your employees sends signals about how you are evaluating them.
  6. Be sensitive when scheduling meetings. Recognize that employees are intertwining work and nonwork activities in new and unpredictable ways. Don’t assume that people have more time just because they are no longer commuting or have fewer social plans. Cancel calls that are not absolutely necessary or make them optional. Keep meetings focused and productive, but also provide opportunities for the informal conversations that would otherwise happen spontaneously in the break room. This will allow you to gauge better how people are feeling about time pressure and work deadlines.
  7. Minimize nonurgent interruptions. If you have less-urgent questions or information to share, consider aggregating points into fewer messages to cut down on the number of interruptions. Think carefully about how you interrupt employees: Asynchronous communication channels, such as email or Slack, allow employees to handle interruptions flexibly, on their own schedules. This may make asynchronous channels a better choice during the pandemic than synchronous video or phone calls, which pressure employees to answer immediately. Unexpected calls may feel unusually intrusive right now, since people may be working from their bedrooms or spending time with their families during standard work hours.
  8. Encourage employees who are working together to create informal “collaboration hours.” During this time, employees can work on individual tasks but keep a Zoom or Google Hangouts window open for impromptu questions and discussions. These virtual opportunities for togetherness keep employees aware of what their coworkers are up to, allow for immediate coordination needs, and maintain relationships while people are physically separated.

Adjusting to remote work isn’t easy, especially during this time of extreme uncertainty and upheaval. Managers will inevitably make mistakes about the time signals they send, but they can be open with employees when this happens — and can also change course if necessary. Being mindful about their time cues can help managers make virtual work easier for their employees and themselves.



The authors would like to thank Erin Reid, an associate professor at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University, for her contributions to this research.

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