Remote working, management control changes & employee responses

How did remote working impact management control practices during the COVID crisis, and how did employees respond to these changes? Gianluca Delfino & I address these questions in a recently published paper in Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, drawing on a field study of Italian professional service firms (PSFs). Below, the context of the study and some key findings are highlighted.

Italy was the first country in Europe to be severely hit by the COVID-19 crisis, and was the first country worldwide to go in full national lockdown on March 10, 2020. As a result, thousands of businesses had to cease activities or allow their employees to work from home. This posed a problem for managers who used to observe their employees and communicate with them while they were working as a team, as being around physically was not possible anymore. We were interested in how management control changed in PSFs, organizations where interaction among colleagues and with clients is important for the delivery of high-quality services. We conducted semi-structured interviews with PSF employees, while focusing on those on which management control was imposed, i.e., employees without managerial responsibilities.

Control changes
We document an increase in the use of some action controls. Some managers for instance increased the number of online meetings, while indicating this was needed because the effectiveness of online meetings is lower than offline meetings. Some employees felt constantly monitored and indicated that they had “Skype always open, because in this way managers can control you and make sure you do your work, and observe whether you are in a meeting, in a call, or that you’re away”. As suggested by some earlier studies, the crisis also led some organizations to impose more constraining types of management control. More checks and phone calls were introduced by some to “make sure that they [the more junior team members] continue working”, according to a PSF manager.

Voluntary visibilizing practices
One of the employee responses that we want to bring to the attention here, was the display of “voluntary visiblizing practices”. We use this notion from Hafermalz (2020), who indicated that remote-working employees may try to make themselves ‘visible’ to their supervisors in various ways when physical visibility in the office space is not possible. In this regard, our findings suggest that some employees started to do overwork to become (more) visible to their supervisors: “Now I start working from 8.30 AM to show them that I am online before official work time”.

Some employees also acknowledged they liked the ‘autonomy’ to organize their working day themselves, while pointing out that they would also work “during the nights” if needed. While we acknowledge that a higher sense of autonomy may motivate employees, we warn for the potential of strong work motivation to turn into over-commitment and self-exploitation. In addition, employees indicated various other changes as a result of the control changes, such as higher levels of stress, a weakened sense of relatedness to others in the organization and a changed perception of the organizational hierarchy.

Looking forward
One takeaway from our paper is that management control changed significantly in response to remote working, and that employees dealt with that in a number of ways, including the demonstration of voluntary visibilizing behavior. We only interviewed a group employees working for various PSFs in one country (Italy), and we are very much looking forward to read and learn more about remote working, control changes and employee responses in the future. We hope our paper may inform or inspire your research projects. Please feel free to send a message if you have any questions regarding this research.

This text was also published as a blog on the website of the European Accounting Association.

Reference and link to the research paper:
Delfino, G. F. and B. van der Kolk (2021), “Remote working, management control changes and employee responses during the COVID-19 crisis”, Accounting, Auditing and Accountability Journal, forthcoming.

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