“How do you deal with a lack of communication and a subsequent lack of work, especially in a WFH context?”
A “lack of communication” and “lack of work” can be expressed as a “lack of task assignment.” As someone in management usually gives task assignments, we can state this as “a lack of task assignment from my manager.” The question then becomes, “How can I deal with a lack of task assignment from my manager while working from home.”
I have to assume that you have been told to wait for tasks to be assigned to you instead of selecting tasks yourself. If you have not received this direction explicitly, as in “I don’t want you to work on any task unless I tell you to work on it,” do not assume that’s the policy. High-pressure and low-trust environments that foster this culture exist, but unless you are 100% sure that is the official process, operate with the assumption that you are in charge of picking your own tasks.
The reason you must have the explicit direction of “Do not pick your own work” is that not working is a great way to get fired, and if you have to wait for tasks to be assigned, there will be periods where you may not be working. You don’t want to get into a situation where someone accuses you of being lazy because you’re waiting for tasks to be assigned to you, but they expect you to pick your own tasks.
Let’s assume you are indeed working a centralized authority command-and-control environment. If so, the most likely reasons for you not getting tasks assigned are:
- There are no tasks to assign.
- You are bad at completing tasks.
- They are bad at assigning tasks.
The problem of there being no tasks to assign is understandable – if there is nothing to do, you won’t be asked to do anything. I have to assume that you know there are tasks to be assigned, but that none are being assigned to you. Further, I have to assume that these are tasks that you are capable of completing because if you can’t finish them, that’s why they’re not being assigned to you.
“Bad at completing tasks,” can be incredibly subjective, but for software developers, the data points people typically look at are:
- Did you complete the task within the estimated time?
- Does the completed task meet all the requirements?
- Does the completed task meet quality standards?
If you know with 100% certainty that every task you have ever completed meets all three of these criteria, you are not bad at completing tasks, and if anyone claims you are, they are wrong. The reality, however, is everyone is occasionally a little over on estimates, misses a few requirements in the initial version, and quality tends to suffer from deadline pressure – and we’re always under deadline pressure.
Knowing that, in reality, you can never be 100% sure that you are unquestionably perfect at delivering tasks, how can you tell? There is only one way: have a conversation with your manager, which starts with, “Am I bad at completing tasks, and if so, what can I do to improve?” If they say, “You are fine,” then you know the lack of task assignment is not because you are bad at completing tasks.
Managers being bad at assigning tasks is common for a few reasons:
- Managers are busy.
- Managers are disorganized.
- Managers are conflict-averse.
Whether or not your manager is busy can be difficult to ascertain unless you follow them around all day. Managers are expected to attend every meeting they are invited to, and reply to every email sent to them. Without you directly observing them, you can’t know. The phenomenon of managers being too busy to handle task assignment is why the industry has moved more to a task-selection model to avoid choke points.
Managers being too disorganized to assign tasks is typical among inexperienced managers. Experienced managers know what everyone is working on at any time, either by having an exceptional memory, keeping meticulous notes, or requiring regular detailed status updates. Managers with experience also know what tasks need to be worked on next, and in what priority order. Newer managers will tend to have no strategy for tracking work in progress or be overly reliant on team self-reporting because they are fearful of micromanaging.
Assigning tasks to someone always invites conflict, and since managers are people, and many people avoid conflict at all costs, conflict-averse managers may be afraid to assign tasks. As a case in point, if a manager has a particularly aggressive subordinate, they may be too scared to say, “I need you to get this done by this date,” which is the core message of task assignment.
There is a problem, however, with the explanation that you are not getting tasks assigned by your manager because your manager is bad at assigning tasks. Why has your manager established a policy that sets them up for failure? While they might happen, it is incredibly odd unless their manager has mandated that they must do all task assignments, which itself is bizarre.
The move to self-organized teams that pick their own work is a response to the problem of managers being unable to keep up with proper task assignments. A centralized command-and-control task assignment structure requires a manager’s full attention, and it’s all-to easy for someone to be idle, which can add up to a massive waste of productivity over time.
Of course, there is another more plausible explanation for your manager not assigning tasks to you: they suddenly have to manage a team remotely, where previously they relied on high-touch methods of task assignment. As you framed the question in a WFH context, my guess is that is what is happening, as a manager experienced in remote team management wouldn’t let their team feel like there was no communication or work to do.
We can think of managers as existing on a spectrum, with the opposite ends being:
- Managers who are purely emotion-driven.
- Managers who are purely data-driven.
Both of these extremes are pretty bad, so most managers exist at some point in between.
When it comes to managing a team in an office where everyone is face-to-face and communicating just as humans have for thousands of years, managers who lean towards being emotion-driven tend to be more effective. The rise of open-office layouts encourages managers to interact with their subordinates frequently, and people don’t like to interact with emotionless robots who ignore people’s feelings. Additionally, the belief that employees being happy maximizes retention and performance results in a high emotional-IQ becoming a core requirement for being a modern manger.
When it comes to managing a remote team, however, managers who lean towards being data-driven are far more effective. Unfortunately, these types of managers were methodically removed or retrained to foster employee happiness. With a sudden switch to working remotely, people now have precisely the wrong kind of manager than what is needed. Where before, a manager could walk around an open office and rely on casual conversation to keep up with their team, now they can’t. Now they have to be meticulous and disciplined to understand what their team is working on, which is far outside of their comfort zone. What workers need in an office is to know that their manager cares about them, but what workers need when working remotely is precisely what they should be working on.
For most companies, managers knowing how to manage remote teams quite literally became a core requirement overnight: one day, it was not a skill managers needed, and the next day it was essential. Up to that point, managers were told that knowing how their employees were feeling was more important than managing their tasks, and many organizations explicitly forbade managers from assigning tasks. Instantly, managers had to shift their approach from discuss-and-empathize to track-and-analyze. Some managers can make this transition smoothly, others will need time to adapt.
Over time, managers new to managing remote teams will figure out how to find the right balance of being data-driven and emotion-driven. We don’t want to pendulum to swing too far in the data-driven direction, or working remotely will feel cold and alienating. However, we need some level of task-level management for employees to feel productive and fulfilled until the proper balance is found. In the meanwhile, don’t assume that you are the reason for the lack of communication, and give your managers the time they need to adapt. Finally, please triple-check that your manager is not expecting you to pick your own tasks, especially in light of the fact that they may be underwater and overwhelmed.