Matthew Duff Learning, writing, and building in the open

Return to the office mandate? You just may be a bad leader. How to drive results and have your employees do their best work

Requiring presence is often bad management

Pixar style manager image looking over shoulder of employee

But first, a disclaimer

I once heard a wise man say “there are no solutions, there are only tradeoffs.” I believe that deeply. Almost nothing is universally true. I want to start off this post with some nuance. There are certainly businesses, industries, and moments in a company’s evolution, where presence and working together is highly beneficial. All movements go too far, and if the people who promote remote work can’t acknowledge that there are exceptions, they’ve entered into cult territory and are not thinking rationally. GitHub was a remote company but we knew that sometimes people needed to gather in a room, around a whiteboard, for brainstorming or doing work in a tightened timeline. In person work can be critical for creative stages in the early part of a project’s life. Similarly, it can be rational, in a companies early days, for founders to want people together to move quickly. What I am going to say next is moving past that nuance and focusing on knowledge workers in most companies. Brace yourself for the some strong opinions!

Managers who require presence are often just bad at leading people. It’s laziness, or exploitation

Managers are often just not very good at their job: Most managers are bad at their jobs. I think that’s almost axiomatically true. Management is hard, and there are not many resources out there to create great managers. Especially if you don’t adhere to the “extract as much value out of people as possible” mentality that many old business books advocate. Managers are often winging it. They are dependent in their early years of management on a mixture of who they are: their experiences and upbringing, likely their DNA, and their work experience up to that point. They often try to carbon copy the best managers they have had while avoiding the pitfalls of their worst managers. Few companies have great resources for you when you become a manager. It’s trial by fire. Your manager is likely not a good manager. I’ve been managing large teams for about 7 years and I would say I am becoming average at this point. I would say I was bad at many of the things I am going to write out later in this document early in my management career. Let’s just acknowledge our areas for improvement and the current dynamic.

When managers are not good at their job, they often resort to lazy indicators of success for their teams. Presence, and the appearance of “looking busy,” is often one of the first tools in the toolbox they reach for. This desire to track people’s time and presence seems to be a recurring theme on “Study finds employees don’t work hard at home, all employees must return to work” articles and headlines. It’s management expressing fear that their employees are not getting anything done. They are not good at bringing the best out of their team, or their individual employees, so they get lazy and say they want to see their team members in their seats. It’s a legacy aspect of a bygone world.

What does good management look like?

To be honest, I am not positive. Great management looks different for different people. People are varied in their abilities, experiences, and needs, so what a good manager looks like to each individual is different. But over the years I have discovered some principles of what good management looks like. Here are some of mine:

Clear expectations and a vision:

At the heart of great management is a company that understands the “why” of what they are doing, and has clearly communicated to employees that vision and outlined who needs to do what to accomplish that vision. This is foundational. If you are unfamiliar with these concepts, or want to read some great books to help you understand these principles, I would recommend two solid books: Simon Sinek’s Start with Why and Patrick Lencioni’s The Advantage. Business books generally suck, but I would say these two are worthwhile reads. Especially if you are new to management. Your team members need to know what the vision is, and what everyone needs to do to accomplish the vision.

Focusing on outcomes:

After you have the vision and know who needs to do what, you need to focus on outcomes. You are being a fool if you are paying your knowledge workers for their presence. A person who is at your company for every waking moment of their day, but who does not deliver any results, is not someone worth employing. Focusing on presence, for the vast majority of roles, is a terrible way to manage. Your company needs to accomplish business outcomes. You need to be laser focused on the needs of your customers, and everyone needs to be helping to accomplish those customer focused objectives. You should not care when they work, or even how much they work 1, you should be entirely focused on the outcomes you are seeking. In fact, if a person ships the outcomes you desire in 10 hours per week, and not 40, that person deserves a raise, not a reprimand. They have delivered more value in less time. That could free them up to do other work. This person should be a highly valued person on the team.

You should also be separating, explicitly, the hours they work from their evaluation as an employee. As an example, I’ve had team members reach out to me to say “I am going to the dentist.” I have said back to them:

Thanks for the heads up. I want to emphasize to you that I am not concerned with where you are during the day. Give me a way to get in touch with you if something urgent comes up, but other than that, you control your own schedule. The primary criteria for evaluating your performance is how well you drive the goals that we have outlined together. That is why you are here at our company, and how your performance will be evaluated. Please don’t feel the need to give me tiny updates about where you are. I want you to feel like you control your schedule, not me. Let’s only focus on shipping those valuable outcomes we have established.

Your job as a manager is to help your employee overcome any and all obstacles that stand in the way of them achieving the outcomes you have aligned on. They can work wherever, and whenever 2, works best for them to do their best work. You help them achieve outcomes. You completely ignore presence, and explicitly tell them that lots of presence without results would not be any consolation, nor would it meet expectations.

Create organic, natural touchpoints for accountability that celebrate achievement:

All of the approaches listed above, if they are not connected to delivering real results, are simply a really flexible work environment that doesnt’ accomplish anything. Delivering better experiences for customers and for fellow employees is at the heart of everything an employee does. All the work needs to lead to clearly defined outcomes. Outcomes are what matter.

Employees often need feedback touchpoints and a chance to demonstrate the great work that they have been doing as well. Often our greatest employees just get shit done and don’t toot their own horn. Provide an opportunity for them to receive the recognition they deserve! You need to provide organic, encouraging checkpoints of accountability into your employees’ regular work. This provides a few really useful opportunities for the individual, team, and company:

  • A chance to get excited and celebrate great work The team can rally around the great work of their peers. It provides the individual an opportunity to get recognized for the great work they are doing. It pumps up their fellow coworkers and creates a culture of achievement, recognition, and celebration. It can really help install a sense of the why into an employee, knowing their labors matter.
  • An opportunity for mentorship and course correction Consistent moments of team wide accountability and celebration also helps course correct when someone is going down a path that could use improvement and provides for fellow team members an opportunity for mentorship and feedback. I was at a company once where two team members worked for two months on a programming project. They finally got in front of the team for feedback and it was determined they went in the completely wrong direction. Pretty much all of the work needed to be scrapped. This was deflating for the team members and the business. An opportunity to get feedback and course correction earlier would have improved the situation dramatically. You will ship better solutions if you have many eyes on it during development. It isn’t “shipping through consensus.” That’s another issue. But it is an opportunity to let others polish the team’s work in a lighweight way.
  • Accountability If you are not focusing on presence, and instead focusing on outcomes, you need accountability for your team to deliver on the things they are responsible for. A feedback touchpoint, with a chance to celebrate achievement, can be a fantastic way to consistently align on current progress, hurdles, and opportunities. For some of the neuro-divergent it can also be a really helpful tool to keep them on track and engaged. If you have this accountability checkpoint intermittently, you do not need to worry about where your employee is, or how often they are looking at their computer screen. You can instead focus on the outputs of their employment.

Disclaimer: Some people really struggle with public speaking even in small group settings. It’s a very reasonable accomodation to have a form of accountability and celeberation that doesn’t require them to present in front of a group. Think through what works for your varied team members by asking them what form of accountability and check ins work best for them. It could be as simple as a Pull Request for a programmer.

One thing I have seen be both fun and effective is a Demo Day. At a regular interval you have team members demo what they have been building and open up some space after each demo for questions from the team. This provides a way to celebrate progress and give an opportunity for mentorship and course correction.

Don’t be a lazy manager

If you are managing a team of knowledge workers you need to level up your game and stop focusing on presence or the appearance of being busy. You need to outline a clear vision, make it clear who needs to do what to accomplish that vision, create organic and consistent opportunities to celebrate that work, and have accountability to demonstrate progress. If you do these things well, for the vast majority of employees and companies, then it will not matter where or when team members work.

What about employees who are not driving outcomes?

If you have instituted these improvements in how your team functions and you have team members who are not demonstrating progress then you need to change your focus. Your first area of focus should be introspection and a conversation with the employee. Bad managers assume the employee is the problem, instinctually. You may be the issue, or the systems at your company may be hurdles for them to do their best work. I would ask the employee what about the environment of your company or where they work is impeding their ability to ship the outlined outcomes. Then I would work very dillgently to remove those obstacles, or give the employee tools to overcome the obstacles.

If the employee still cannot drive the outcomes they are responsible for it may be a time to part ways. There are millions of companies around. Not every company is a great fit for everyone. Some people don’t thrive in an environmnet of high autonomy. If your employee is one of these people, help them transition to a new company and be generous with them in that process. Trust is critical to any organization. Once trust is lost it is incredibly difficult for the working relationship, especially with lots of autonomy, to work again. High performers want to be around other high performers. It’s too damaging to company morale to have someone on the team not contributing. If you find someone in this situation after you have made all the improvements you can based on their feedback it’s often best to part ways. Be a good human in the form of generous severance. Make the move sooner rather than later.

My employees are shipping their objectives, I am just concerned they are not working the full 40 or more hours!

If your employees are shipping all of their objectives, and you are simply worried they are not working enough, you may not be lazy. You may be trying to exploit them. Are you simply trying to squeeze as much productivity out of them as possible?

People working 40 hours per week is made up and subjective. If your employee gets done in 30 hours what takes another person 40 hours, is that okay? Do you need to squeeze an additional 10 hours of productivity out of them? I’d venture to say that focusing on time as the primary metric for productivity is a poor approach. Ignore the click baity thumbnail and title and focus on this fantastic keynote address from Alex Hormozi. Hours per week, for knowledge workers, shouldn’t be the standard. It should be output. Refer to footnote 2 for some more detail on when knowing the amount of hours an employee is working could be high signal, but generally, avoid caring about hours worked.

Focus on what matters

Your business will not accomplish it’s goals if you have someone sitting at a desk, in your local area, looking busy all day without outcomes. If you are an effective manager, you are not focused on presence. You are focused on achieving clearly outlined business goals. Stop being a lazy manager and focus on what matters. Move mountains to help your employees do the best work of their career. But do it by providing lots of autonomy and flexibility. Remote work is fantastic for both of these things.

As you focus on outcomes you will get the best work of your employee’s lives. You will dramatically decrease turnover in comparison to companies who micro manager and require presence. You will get your pick of the best talent on earth. You will accomplish your business’s objectives.

You don’t need employees to come into the office. You, and your extended leadership team, need to be better leaders.


1 You should care if your employees are working too much. You want your roles to be sustainable, and you want your employees to be happy and healthy. Happy and healthy employees are better to work with, and they often produce better results. Also, if your employee is producing what you think of as full-time outcomes in 3 hours per week you need to figure out why you understand the task so poorly. There is signal in how much an employee is working, but only in broad brush strokes. Focus on outcomes.
2 It does not matter when or where an employee works. Only that they achieve their objectives. I have found it effective to say “you need to be available within normal working hours for your coworkers and their meetings. It’s challenging to optimize for lots of people’s schedules across time zones, therefore we default to normal business hours for meetings. Be available for collaboration when needed (with reasonable expectations) and you can work outside of that whenever and wherever you would like. Also, have a high bar for what requires a meeting!