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.

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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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