Remote Employees May Be Less Productive — But is Surveillance Software the Solution?

Remote work is considered a top perk, but data show employees that log on from home are 10% less productive than in office counterparts. While it might be tempting to invest in an employee monitoring software, the risks could be worse than the perceived rewards.

In June, Wells Fargo fired more than a dozen employees citing the use of “simulation of keyboard activity creating impression of active work,” according to a filing reviewed by Bloomberg News. The bank is the latest in a string of businesses investing in “bossware” technology, or software installed on an employer to monitor productivity or performance of their workers.

Bossware has a bad reputation — and perhaps rightfully so. Technology that keeps tabs on employees every keystroke can make workers feel like they have no autonomy or privacy. It can also ruin the already delicate balance of trust between employee and employer.

“I think it’s taking us back a step instead of forward,” says Amy Thomas, founder and HR consultant at Horizon Business Services. “Employers think it’s going to have an impact on productivity, but in reality it makes people resistant.”

The use of employee surveillance software has grown since the pandemic, due to employers concerns about the productivity of remote workers. Data from Stanford shows that work-from-home employees are about 10% less productive compared with in-office counterparts.

While it may be tempting for employers to simply recall their entire team back into the office, the solution isn’t quite so simple. Hardline stances on returning to the office have backfired for many companies. Employees at SAP, for example, wrote a letter to management that said they felt “betrayed” by the firm’s “radical change in direction” on its back to office stance, according to the Washington Post.

Remote work is a perk favored by many employees. Almost all employees (98%) want the option to work at least some of the time for the rest of their careers, according to a survey from Buffer. For marketing teams in particular, remote work is on the rise. While some bank jobs require employees to be in the office five days a week, marketing teams can often afford to offer their teams more flexibility. Offering flexibility is also a good way to ensure employee retention — especially when competing with boutique agencies and consulting firms that offer flashy perks.

But investing in worker monitoring software also isn’t the way, Thomas says. Especially with younger employees like Generation Z and millennials, surveillance technology can do more damage than good. Instead, companies should focus on creating a culture of flexibility and accountability that encourages workers to own their time and meet their goals

“There’s this whole thought about a culture of fear versus a culture of empowerment and what’s the right way to ensure that you’re holding your people accountable while still giving them the freedom and flexibility,” Thomas says. “I really just want to caution employers against this surveillance method.”

So how can teams juggling remote workers ensure they’re getting stuff done while not breaching trust? Having the right performance management plans in place can help you foster a happier and more productive team.

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Surveillance Should Be a Last Resort

Being able to effectively manage your team is key to ensuring they are being productive on a day-to-day basis. Old fashioned performance reviews and feedback can be a good way of determining how productive a team member is, and may even be more useful than a productivity tracking software. Managers should also receive training on effective performance management and there should be a clear process in place at the company to manage low performers.

“Managers and supervisors need to be holding their employees accountable for achieving deliverables and giving two way feedback,” Thomas says. “Getting more involved in training new managers and upskilling current supervisors and leaders and how to have those check-ins with employees to make sure they understand what their deliverables are and their milestones are documented.”

Managers should set tangible objectives for each position and work closely with team members to achieve their goals. Employers can also have a general understanding of how long it might take to complete a specific task, but do leave room for some variability. Be clear with workers that you trust them to get their work done, Thomas says. If they continuously breach that trust, investing in tools like surveillance technology could be a last option.

“You certainly can find a way to use them in an ethical and transparent way,” Thomas says.

The Risk Associated with Employee Monitoring Tools

In the age of employee review sites like Glassdoor, it’s become easier than ever for workers to share their experiences with current and former employers.

Employees talk — and if workers are concerned that you’re keeping tabs on their mouse movements they’re probably going to tell at least one other colleague. This can put a bad taste in employee’s mouths, and could lead to recruiting and retention issues or in extreme cases, reputational damage for the company. It makes employees feel like you’re trying to squeeze as much work out of them as possible, Thomas says.

“I understand wanting to cut down on employment costs and improve the bottom line, but in the long run, it’s having effects on their workforces and their reputation,” Thomas says. “I do think there’s a lot to be said for trusting people and having employee engagement strategies that revolve around balance and flexibility and well being.”

“Getting more involved in training new managers and upskilling current supervisors and leaders and how to have those check-ins with employees to make sure they understand what their deliverables are and their milestones are documented.”

— Amy Thomas, Horizon Business Services

Culture is Key

The most successful companies with the happiest employees invest heavily in developing culture. Strong cultures can help companies, and individual teams, differentiate themselves from competitors.

Employees who feel connected to the culture at their employer are 68% less likely to feel burned out and are 55% less likely to be looking for other jobs, according to Gallup data. Employers that have strong cultures have an easier time attracting better talent, and keeping those employees for longer periods of time.

“I do think that the companies with strong leadership and strong culture will prevail,” Thomas says. “When you have a strong leader who holds their people accountable and has a strong vision that drives their decisions, people kind of drink the Kool Aid and they’re willing to work harder.”

While fostering a culture of productivity and accountability is not an exact science, there are a few steps that leaders can take to start to take stock of their current culture, according to Gallup. These include, taking stock of the current culture, assessing any gaps between the ideal and actual culture, seeking alignment, and establishing accountability.

Whatever method you pursue to ensure the team is being productive, it’s clear that using technology to micromanage your workforce probably isn’t the answer, Thomas says.

“Don’t expect your people to be loyal to you, when you treat them like children,” she says. “If your goal is to succeed as a company and as a business you really have to get your people to really buy into your vision and your mission. You have to really take culture seriously. Evading trust is the first way to tear that down.”

Caroline Hroncich is a freelance business journalist based in New York. She writes about workplace trends, HR, personal finance, banking, and more. Her work has appeared in MarketWatch, Business Insider, Employee Benefit News, the Society for Human Resource Management, and Cannabis Wire.

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