Before starting Tortuga, the company with one of the most highly-rated travel backpacks on the market, I’d had mixed experiences with managers.
My first job out of college was at Google – then the “#1 place to work.” All of the managers on our team were former individual contributors who became managers because the company was growing so fast. Yesterday’s associates became today’s managers as a fresh batch of college graduates took their place. Some people were great at their new management role. Others were clearly not suited for it.
We’ve all had experience with bad managers: They know all the answers and how everything should be done.
You have to do the work and do it exactly how they would have done it themselves. They micromanage you every step of the way but still aren’t satisfied with the results. And you shouldn’t be working towards their expectations anyways. You should aim to find a solution to the problem at hand.
If your employees are trying to do it your way, they won’t develop a complete understanding of the problem they’re solving, and the results will show that.
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Micromanagement is a surefire way to make your best people quit.
Cases of bad management pop up in the news all the time. A company that seems to have everything together on the outside is hell for its employees – resulting in high turnover, not to mention bad press. High attrition costs employers 33% of a worker’s annual salary to hire a replacement if someone leaves.
Employees expect their employers to support them in balancing work and personal commitments, yet there is often a disconnect. They feel obligated to put work ahead of everything else – even their own health. This leads to burnout, poor performance, loss of trust in the company, and ultimately, they’ll be looking to move to a different company.
It is essential for companies to retain their employees.
This requires giving employees autonomy and flexibility over where, when, and how they work, valuing work-life balance, knowing how to coach employees to solve problems, and creating an environment of psychological safety.
Starting Tortuga, I had to learn how to lead the company and the team without becoming the proverbial type of manager I had always rebelled against. I had to build a company that I’d want to work at.
I don’t claim to be the best manager in the world, but I learned some things about how to manage people along the way.
The result? A 0% attrition rate.
So far, not a single Tortuga employee has quit or been fired. Here’s how we do it.
Stop micromanaging. Here’s what to do instead.
Micromanagement goes beyond day-to-day tasks.
It shows up in how, when, and where you let people work, in your ideas of time, how you show (or don’t show) trust in your employees, the language you use, how you approach goal setting, how you think about motivation, and the feeling of psychological safety you create.
The suggestions we make won’t be possible for every job or company to accommodate. The point isn’t to dictate how all work should look, but to demonstrate that there may be different ways to work that are better for your employees and business – and to encourage you to figure out what a version of this might look like at your workplace.
Let employees work where they work best
At Tortuga, working remotely was an accident.
My co-founder, Jeremy, and I had the idea for Tortuga in 2009 while on a backpacking trip to Eastern Europe. When we returned to the States and started working on the project, we lived in separate cities. Jeremy was in film school in Los Angeles, and I worked at Google in San Francisco. We were already remote workers even though we didn’t know the terminology yet.
With just the two of us, it never felt like a decision. Remote was a necessity.
When we started to hire teammates in 2014, we had five years of remote work experience under our belts. We weren’t going to move, and we weren’t turning back. So, when the time came to grow, we looked for the right teammates regardless of their location. Working remote jobs wasn’t as popular as it is today.
Years later, we’ve built our company and its systems around working from anywhere.
It has its challenges – we’re one of the few, if not the only, remote physical product companies. This means shipping product samples across the country to different team members. But the benefits far outweigh the challenges. We save on rent, our employees are happier (and do their jobs better), and we can hire the best people for the job regardless of location.
Allow your employees work when they’re most productive
At Tortuga, working on our terms means our employees work not only where they want to for extra productivity, but also when they want to work from.
For some employees this means working traditional hours from a coworking space, maybe taking an extra long lunch break to do a yoga class. A couple of employees work best in the evenings, early mornings, or like to put in longer days earlier in the week to have a shorter day on Friday.
Some days it just means it’s more comfortable to work from bed or take a midday nap. These team members, often penalized in traditional settings – if not by policy, then by the structures that support traditional hours – can thrive when they have autonomy over their work schedule. In supporting these employees in their physical and mental health, they can feel excited about making an impact through their work.
Working on your terms isn’t always about yoga classes or starting your day on a beach in Costa Rica. Sometimes it means taking care of your own well being or staying with your sick grandmother and soaking up her life experiences while working when you can.
Focus on output, not hours
Time is the wrong unit of measurement for knowledge work.
The average full-time employee in the US works 47 hours per week. And guess what? People aren’t getting any more work done.
Ever heard of Parkinson’s Law? It states that “work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.”
Think about those days where you didn’t have much on your to do list, but still somehow used all 8 hours to get it done. Or the days where you had to leave work early so you were super productive and got everything done. Parkinson’s Law at work.
Burned-out employees cost an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion a year in the US.
Working more than 50 hours a week is counterproductive and can be hazardous to your health. Sleep is impaired, depression and stress increase, and simple things like communication, collaboration, and getting stuff done break down.
So, if you think you can ask your employees to put in 100 hours a week now because it will get easier later, you’re putting their health at risk for very little benefit to your business.
Time spent away from your desk is helpful. Your subconscious is often the one to solve a problem when you aren’t even trying.
But then, how do you ensure your employees are working if you can’t measure how long they sit in a chair? Output. If an employee isn’t getting work done, it will show.
Reduce the false sense of urgency around things
Often when a problem or opportunity comes to light, it can feel like the solution should have happened yesterday – maybe you’ve finally discovered a great conversion optimization trick on your blog that doubles the average pageview value, or you’ve recognized an opportunity for a new feature for your software that will blow your competitors out of the water. You want the change as fast as possible because the benefits will be so great – but that’s always going to be the case.
There’s always something to be improved or an opportunity to seize. Especially at a startup, it doesn’t ever feel like you can work fast enough. But working 80-hour weeks will lead to burnout and poor performance – and it doesn’t yield better results, remember?
Focus on the work that matters
No, you do not have to sacrifice every hour of leisure to make your startup succeed. Time will not get your business off the ground. It’s what you do with that time that truly matters.
It’s easy to fill out our schedule and think that everything’s important – but that’s just the illusion of keeping busy. Maybe more important than what you do, is what you choose not to do.
Guide your team in focusing on prioritizing tasks and eliminating low-impact work. It’s all in the data. Our Marketing Manager proposed that we do the bare minimum on social – giving us pennies compared to other efforts – and double down on other things that were promising, like optimizing the content on our blog. When your team focuses on the work that matters, their work will feel more exciting, and they’ll be able to dedicate all their talent to making a big impact on the business.
Trust your employees
Trust is what holds a business together. You have to trust that your employees will get their job done without you looking over their shoulder.
If you’re always supervising them, they’re more concerned with making sure it looks like they’re working rather than doing the things that work best.
Once you’ve hired the right person, you have to trust them from the get-go. Ideally, we can get to the same point that Laszlo Bock outlined in his book Work Rules!:
In most organizations, you join the team and then have to prove yourself. At Google, there’s such faith in the quality of the hiring process that people join and, on their first day, are trusted and full members of their teams.
When someone joins the team, show you trust them on day 1. Give them access to all of the accounts that they will need, don’t make them earn that ability. Let them show you how capable they are. Your company isn’t a frat, and this isn’t a hazing ritual.
Trust is a two-way street.
Show trust in the hiring process, too, through transparency. When our Marketing Director, Taylor, was interviewing at Tortuga, she asked for access to our Google Analytics account for a trial project during her hiring process. I gave her full access.
When we were hiring our Web Designer, Garrett, he asked to talk to Taylor, who wasn’t part of the hiring team for his role but with whom they would be collaborating. We told him he could talk to whomever he wanted. The only guidance we gave to Taylor was to be totally honest and answer any questions Garrett had.
Hire the right people
Trusting people is impossible if you don’t hire the right teammates from the beginning.
When it comes to hiring the best employees for remote work, there are five critical elements to success:
- Look at past experience: If your candidate had a successful prior remote work experience, it’s a signal that they can do it again.
- Self-starter: Look for qualities that indicate that the candidate takes initiative on their own. It’s not enough to “follow orders”; they have to get projects off the ground independently too.
- Freelance or side-hustle: If the candidate has worked as a freelancer or has a side hustle beyond their full-time job, they’re likely already good at self-management.
- Intrapreneurship: Intrapreneurship is similar to entrepreneurship within a larger company. Does the candidate have experience starting projects or initiatives to grow the business?
- Starting something, anything: Maybe they’ve demonstrated these skills in college by founding clubs or organizing intramural sports teams. Even if these things are outside of the business world, it’s a great signal that a candidate can take initiative.
Create an environment of psychological safety
According to a study by Google, psychological safety was the quintessential factor to a team’s success.
Psychological safety is about creating an environment where all team members feel safe to take risks, speak out, and be themselves.
It’s about providing a sense of confidence in your workplace where no team member worries about being embarrassed, rejected, or punished for contributing to the conversation. It is characterized by mutual respect and interpersonal trust.
The vulnerability of managers – sharing mistakes and personal life circumstances – even showed to help employees feel more comfortable contributing at work.
To develop psychological safety within your remote work company, it starts from the top down. Leadership must demonstrate active listening and social sensitivity if they are going to expect their team members to feel comfortable contributing. Some things you can do to help:
- Invite all of your employees to speak up – be aware of who is speaking and who is not, and pay special attention to asking opinions from people who are quieter who might need more encouragement in the beginning
- Talk about your own emotions – humanizing yourself reduces fear in your employees
- Listen without interrupting – this will help employees to feel valued
- Show concern and empathy – often if you give your employees space to talk about their personal lives they’ll feel more at ease knowing you care
- Anticipate reactions – it’s important to be tactful in your delivery as a manager – especially when you’re highlighting how something could have gone better. If your employees feel embarrassed or ashamed, they’re more likely to make mistakes in their work. Also, if you have an individual note for improvement, save it for a private conversation
- Encourage honest and open communication – even in disagreements
It’s time to change your workplace
Shifting your company’s culture from one of micromanagement to one that values trust and autonomy isn’t easy, but it can have a huge impact on your business.
- Start by changing what it means to “be productive.” Focus on output rather than the number of hours being put in.
- Reduce the false sense of urgency around things.
- Help your employees focus on high-impact work by eliminating low-impact work.
- Trust your employees and hire the right people from the start.
- Give your employees a direction, but let them figure out how to row the boat.
- Create a culture where everyone feels comfortable contributing.
- Allow your employees to work when, where, and how they work best.
Giving up some control will yield the best outcome for yourself, your company, and your employees. You’ll be blown away by what your employees can do on their own.
First published on April 8, 2020.