The benefits of flexible work models for both workers and businesses are well established. Ranging from improved work-life balance to uplifts in productivity, the model is here to stay. These work models mean leaders have had to adapt to managing distributed and remote teams, often across different regions, countries, and continents. A lot of rides on getting this right, with company culture and success at risk if people and managers can’t find ways of connecting when not physically in the same space.
At the same time, both HR and business leaders are still expected to effectively monitor and measure work output from employees who are working remotely. In turn, it has given rise to the use of worker surveillance technology that can do anything from log keystrokes, take screenshots, record mouse movements, activate webcams and microphones, or periodically snap pictures without employees knowing. A specific technology called “bossware” is also often used, which is software that allows supervisors to automatically monitor the productivity of their employees. They face unique challenges in being able to gather the data they need while still respecting people’s privacy.
A recent survey of 2,000 UK employers, commissioned by HCM provider, HiBob, and a UK professional body for HR and people development – CIPD (Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development) indicated the three least accepted measures for monitoring staff relate to taking screenshots and randomly recording web activities. Most were uncomfortable with the idea of arbitrarily collecting more information than was needed to assess their employees’ performance or well-being. Many also found this to be invasive. Interestingly, the use of these less popular practices is more widespread in the US.
A survey last September by the review site Digital.com of 1,250 US employers found 60% of remote employees are using work monitoring software of some type, most commonly to track web browsing and application use. And almost nine out of 10 of the companies said they had terminated workers after implementing monitoring software. Tracking may catch one low performer out of 100, but that leaves 99 adequate or high performers feeling disconcerted.
This is borne out by research commissioned by enterprise software company VMware which showed as much as 36% of companies in Canada that had employee monitoring in place reported increased staff turnover.
Companies need to consider proportion, purpose, and ethics. They also need to weigh whether they are prepared to lose good staff. Other challenges of electronic monitoring, aside from the obvious privacy laws and corrosive effects on trust, center on the fact that these programs use the activity as a proxy for productivity; More emails don’t necessarily translate to being more productive. An employee could be taking time to coach or mentor more junior staff for example or are working offline on big content-led projects. To overlook these activities or practices would be ill-advised at best.
Companies also need to be wary of AI models, often trained on databases of previous subjects’ behavior, which have proven inaccurate and have shown to be baked in gender or racial bias. Remote monitoring products that involve a webcam can be particularly problematic too, as video could provide clues that a worker is pregnant, disabled, or even suggest sexual orientation – essentially giving employers a different level of information than they would otherwise have, and certainly more than they need. This also opens the floor for potential unrecognized bias.
It’s clear that workers are not easily accepting this level of scrutiny without human oversight. Being monitored lowers your sense of perceived autonomy which can increase stress and anxiety. Research on workers in the call center industry – a pioneer of electronic monitoring – highlights the direct relationship between extensive monitoring and stress, and it does not translate to greater productivity – quite the opposite.
Ultimately how a business decides to measure performance, growth, or company success will reflect on that organization’s culture.
Progressive businesses understand that a healthy culture based on transparency, communication, and flexibility drives sustainable growth and positive business outcomes. It is intrinsically tied to being able to attract and retain the best talent. HiBob’s CIPD survey findings bear this out, with HR decision-makers placing organizational culture in the list of top five business focuses for the next 12 months.
Nevertheless, it’s understandable for businesses to want to gain insight into what their staff spends time on or how long anything takes them to do, but collecting more information than is needed or using blanket ‘one-size-fits-all’ proxies across diverse roles within an organization to fulfill any audit purpose is likely to give a false reading. More importantly, it could undermine trust, and impact the relationship between staff and employers, irrevocably damaging employee engagement – the cornerstone of good company culture and the long-term employee value proposition.
If you are monitoring employee productivity remotely or thinking about introducing workplace surveillance, make sure you’re focusing on the right activities for each individual. Failure to do so could create a paranoid workforce of demotivated, disengaged staff which is counterproductive, in the long run.
- Tell employees what you’re monitoring and why.
- Check with employees to make sure measures are relevant and necessary for the purpose.
- Only collect relevant data and ensure you protect it against unauthorized access as well
- Keep data only for as long as is necessary to meet stated legitimate interests.
- Beware of cultural context – what’s acceptable in one setting might not be in another.
It’s clear the way companies lead and manage people needs to evolve in line with a shift in business focus away from ‘productivity paranoia’ towards encapsulating the values that underpin a company’s stated culture. New management styles, more diverse teams, and democratic outlooks are on the horizon with many organizations evidently moving towards a digital-first, hybrid work model centered around people. This is no happy accident. Good and successful companies understand that people are in fact their most valuable asset without whom there is no business.
It could be argued that productivity paranoia represents a failure by managers to adapt to the new world of work, but it’s here to stay and smart employers will need to learn how to fight their biases and reframe how to assess good work performance.
Ultimately, what employees seek today in a workplace is somewhere that embodies flexibility; a culture of trust that measures outcomes, not hours worked. To succeed in the longer term, leaders will need to work past this monomania and start building a culture of trust and empowerment for their company and employees if they want to be curators of sustainable business success.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
HiBob Director of People and Culture, Americas
Annie is the Director of People & Culture at HiBob. She oversees all things HR for HiBob’s North American team while serving as a strategic business partner to the global sales function. Annie loves HR tech and has led People Operations for several high-growth organizations, including NY-based startups, Namely Knotel. She brings a breadth of experience across the HR field, focusing on HR transformation and change management.