some of my employees have a butts-in-seats mentality … and some just disappear — Ask a Manager Jobearn

A reader writes:

In the remote time period following 2020, I took over supervision of a small team. We are finally back on-site and I’m encountering an issue I didn’t have in the fully remote setting. Our work is only sometimes coverage-based. The times this is the case are firm and established. Other times, it really doesn’t matter where the work is being done and, in fact, sometimes requires someone to move through the department or building.

I have some team members who feel the need to update me with every possible move — “I’m going to the supply closet, okay?” … “I need to go talk to someone; I promise it’s work related” — and also announce every single break and lunch (at the same time every day). I really don’t need (or want!) this level of oversight on their movements through the workday! They can’t seem to resist even when told not to, even to the point of interrupting meetings to let me know they’re walking down the hallway to fill up their water bottle in a non-coverage based time period.

I have other team members who will straight up disappear while on the clock and are impossible to track down. This is just as untenable, albeit in the opposite direction.

I have tried leading by example, making sure to let people know where I’m going when it impacts coverage and moving freely when not. I have tried directly naming both outlooks as a problem: “You don’t have to tell me, I don’t need to know where you’re going for [X] reasons.” / “It’s an essential job function that you are responsive and reachable within [X] time frame.” To the former, I was told they prefer to tell me where they are. To the latter, I get empty promises. I’ve also tried pulling them into solution building: “What can we try to make sure people know where you are?” etc. These prompt very non-committal responses.

I suspect this is part returning to office growing pains, part leftover attitudes from my predecessor, part personality quirks. Either way, my strategies obviously aren’t working, so your advice would be appreciated!

Let’s tackle the overly informative people first. I bet you’re right that some of it is left over from the manager before you; overly controlling managers can instill habits that seem really weird once the controlling manager is removed from the picture. (It’s one reason why it’s so important for people to be deliberate about doing a mental reset when they leave a toxic manager for a healthier workplace … but lots of people don’t do that.)

In any case, it sounds like you’ve told people that they don’t need to announce all their movements to you, but that’s different than telling them not to. Try the latter. For example: “We’ve talked about this before but it hasn’t stuck, so I want to be clearer now: I’d like you to stop updating me when you leave your desk. I trust you to manage your time, it’s not information I need, and it’s interrupting my own workflow to get such frequent updates! I also don’t want a culture where other people see what you’re doing and feel they need to report it every time they go somewhere. So going forward, please only update me if you are leaving for the day or will be gone several hours unexpectedly.”

You might need to have this conversation a few times before it sticks, but it’s likely that switching your language from “you don’t need to do X” to “do not do X” will make a difference.

The people who disappear for long stretches and are impossible to track down are a different story. It would be one thing if they just had weird habits after two years of working from home, but it’s concerning that explicitly told them they must be more responsive and they’ve just given you non-committal responses that haven’t changed anything. If they’re not responding to your feedback with changes, and if people can’t get responses from them when needed, that’s a serious issue and you’ve got to treat it as such.

As a next step, I’d sit down with each of them and say, “We’ve talked about this previously but I haven’t seen changes. What’s going on?”

Because really, what is going on? Are they finding it hard to focus now that they’re back in the office and they’re disappearing to go work from a quiet conference room? (Although then you’d think they’d still be responding to messages so it’s probably not that … but it could be something in that neighborhood.) Are they, I don’t know, working a second job while on the clock for you? Each of those would require a very different response, so the first step is to ask and hear them out with an open mind. (Also, did you have this issue while they were working from home? If they were responsive then and aren’t now … something is going on that direct questions will hopefully get at.)

Your next steps from there will depend on what you hear. If you hear “I can’t bear the noise so I’m working from the diner next door and there’s no internet there,” that gives you something specific you can jointly try to fix — and will probably change your perspective and point you toward solutions you hadn’t realized you needed to find. But if you just hear more non-committal responses, that’s alarming and you’ve got a more serious problem on your hands. In that case you’d need to move to, “I need to see XYZ changes in the next week. Are you able to do that?” And before you have this conversation you should think about what you’ll do if nothing changes — what consequences are reasonable? Is this something that would jeopardize their jobs? Would you start down a formal discipline path? Whatever comes next if nothing changes, be up-front about that now (“this is serious / without changes in the very near future, X will be the next step”).

But it’s reasonable to hold firm on people needing to be responsive if that’s part of the job.

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