Has the Hybrid Work Culture Spawned the Horror of Helicopter Bosses?

It would be arguably safe to say that no hardworking, reliable employee wants a micromanager constantly peering over their shoulder. It shows, at the very least, a lack of trust and confidence in their abilities, their work ethic, and/or their capacity to deliver. 

Unfortunately, that kind of hands-on kind of advisor has emerged with a vengeance post-pandemic: the helicopter boss. They get that moniker or label from another overzealous authority, the helicopter parent.  What makes them similar is their tendency to hover over their charge, often without let-up. In the corporate culture, the employee subjected to that kind of scrutiny complains that they cannot even breathe.  

In the pre-digital world, a micromanager makes their presence known through a phone call, a tap on the employee’s shoulder, or a summons to the office. While all that still sounds ominous or intrusive, those actions still give the worried staffer a few minutes to catch their breath and keep their composure before answering the call or marching to their boss’ cubicle. 

Origin of the helicopter boss

The digital workplace has made micromanaging or helicopter leadership far more suffocating. As some stressed staffers describe it, they get emails following up on their work every ten to fifteen minutes. If their boss sees them “away” from their post, through a software notification, they get a ping to go online again within seconds. And if the helicopter boss is still not satisfied, they will ask for an instant zoom conference call—even though the last video call between them happened only an hour ago.

Global mobility professionals studying this worrisome workplace trend blame its rise to the hybrid workplace, which in turn came from the totally remote-work set-up. Employers and their managers had no choice when they abided by those arrangements during the lockdowns to contain the spread of COVID-19. But it does not necessarily mean that they liked it.

Many of them said that since that time, and even though the staff had migrated to the hybrid set-up, they still didn’t know what their individual team members were doing at any single point in time.  They were not certain whether the deadlines were followed or whether other assignments were being observed.

The set-up is far different from the pre-pandemic days when, just by a glance over the cubicles, they would have an inkling of which team member was focused on at any given point in time. Sometimes, all it would take was a ten-minute talk with a team member during the watercooler break to sense their disposition or whether they were focused on the job or not.

Today’s remote work, which has since graduated to the hybrid workplace, does not offer that same kind of assurance. Some workplace analysts say that the helicopter boss feels their control over their team members is slipping away—and to gain supposed lost ground, they re-assert themselves to an excessive degree.

Pressure points and anxieties

According to one Microsoft survey, 85% of leaders admitted that their confidence in their employees’ productivity has significantly declined because of the rise of hybrid work. Meanwhile, other pieces of Microsoft data showed that 42% of employees felt pressured to show their superiors that they were working on the job—to the point of multitasking. Virtual meetings have also increased by 135% since the pandemic. 

This situation is heading toward a collision course between both helicopter bosses and stressed employees. Another side effect would be two volcanos on both sides of the workplace exploding as both parties near their respective pressure points.

Some HR leaders are already calling for intervention to avoid these disruptions, which can add more stress to an office scenario possibly nearing its tipping point. 

One way is to rebuild trust between the helicopter bosses and their embattled staff. Both parties must meet and be open about their concerns while listening to the other side. It will not be easy at first, but communication is the first step to bridging rifts and building connections. It will help if a neutral third party acting on behalf of the company is present to facilitate the dialogue.

Needless to say, name-calling and finger-pointing would not result in positive outcomes. Instead, both parties must be clear about what they want to achieve and what they can both do to be on common ground. For example, if the employee feels that the helicopter boss does not trust them, what can this leader do to show that trust, e.g. step back a bit and stop those hourly zoom conference calls? At the same time, what can the employee do to show that they are worthy of trust and are working on the job even if they are at home; for example, they could submit their tasks on time without the supervisor calling their attention once they slack?

Collaboration instead of control

Another way to remove workplace tension is to return to outcome-based agreements instead of time-based ones. Staffers have become used to the flexibility, and many will just resign quietly instead of returning to what they think are traditional rigid measures. For example, one agreement would be submitting the task within a 3-hour time frame, without having to log in or notify the helicopter boss that they are on the clock every 60 minutes.

Finally, replace control with collaboration. A helicopter boss may just stop hovering once they see that the employee is working. Visibility is the key. Monitoring and reporting, however, may show a lack of trust. What can build trust while encouraging the employee to give their best is an active and ongoing collaboration between themselves and their leader. This process gives them a voice and allows their insights and opinions to be heard. They become partners, and not just drones, in the work process.

The hybrid workplace is here to stay, but it does not mean that helicopter bosses should, too. A more humane, responsible, and nurturing leadership who brings out the best in their teams can arise as the better option.