All day Zoom calls are 2020s new micromanaging trend

Managing people isn’t a skill everyone comes to naturally. For so many, becoming a manager is a process of being recognized for having a particular set of skills, and they aren’t always being good at leading people. And if they aren’t trained into the job correctly, they might assume that managing people is as simple as watching them do a job, and correcting them if anything goes wrong, because they know how to do that.

Last week I came across ‘My Boss Wants Us On Zoom All Day Long.’ This article on The Cut features an anonymous employee writing in to Alison Green in a Dear Annie type format, and she specifically raises the problem she’s having that her boss expects the entire office to be on Zoom all day long. The boss in this scenario framed the idea as a path to “establishing a work-life balance,” and to “see our co-workers and feel like we’re back in the office.”

The anonymous submission notes that it’s pretty clear what the whole thing really is, “a poorly disguised attempt to micromanage.”

Now, if you’re a senior leader, you’re probably past the stage where you want to watch all of your employees for an entire shift for fear that someone’s bathroom break goes a little too long. The accepted dynamic has rightfully been decided that you judge people on their results, and not how much time they spend at their desk, be it at the office or at home.

Guess what? Many mid-level managers have yet to learn this lesson. In the age of Covid-19, that results in all-day Zoom calls, but as Green points out, the problems were there well before 2020:

“These are managers who probably weren’t especially skilled at leading teams when everyone was in the same location, and now that people are at home, they’re freaking out. They genuinely don’t know how to ensure people are working or how to hold them accountable from afar, so they’ve settled on ‘I will watch you all day long’ as a substitute.”

Anyone who’s worked in an office for a considerable period of time knows just the type of manager Green is talking about. The type of person who walks around with a cup of coffee, idly chatting with other managers for long stretches of time, and forming opinions on employees from over-the-shoulder assessments.

There are no positives to this kind of approach. Unmotivated and slacking employees learn that for the couple of hours a day that the manager is around, that’s the time to “look busy.” For high performing employees, the anxiety of having someone hovering is often enough to drive them out of the company, or turn them into a slacker themselves in order to game the system.

What makes matters worse is the “work-life balance” excuse given by this boss. While the employee admits that they are given permission to have lunch and a few breaks, that’s hardly what a work life balance is, specially when so many of us are dealing with children who are also remote schooling. I can tell you that there are plenty of people who scoff at CEOs who say they want to return to the office so they can push a company culture, when this is the type of culture employees are expecting.

In her response, Green advises politely questioning the boss, perhaps with some other coworkers signed on, about their Zoom-a-thon request. But the greater lesson here is that a results-first mindset has yet to be fully embraced by everyone in leadership positions.

To look for some advice better worded than anything I could come up with, I turned to my trusty copy of ‘How to Lead’ by Jo Owen. In it, Owen calls this micromanagement style “MBWA, or Management by Walking Around,” and likens it to the star football player who’s been made a coach, but doesn’t know how to “give up the familiar world of the locker room.” These managers aren’t malicious, they just don’t know better. Owen advises:

“Arguably, the opposite of MBWA is required: Management By Walking Away.” For a leader, this is nerve-racking; you direct a team to do something, and you want to see how it is doing. You want to pull the seed up every few moments to see how it is progressing. Leave it alone. Be available for help, but do not interfere. The end result may not be exactly what you predicted; it may be better. By not interfering, you show you trust the team, they feel motivated, they do their best and they learn more by trying to do things themselves than by blindly following your exact orders.”

Sounds easy for some, and may sound impossible to others. But unless you’re managing someone flipping burgers who also happens to be prone to grease-fires, you likely have a roster of highly talented employees who can be assessed best by their results, and coached through pre-determined sessions. And that beats walking around all day.

So, if you are a middle manager and any of this sounds like you, take a lesson. If you’re a senior member of the leadership team, find out just how micromanaging your managers are and maybe talk with them about results. And if you’re one of the poor employees who has to suffer this kind of leadership, I’ll be back soon with some advice on managing your manager.