Companies ‘spy’ on remote employees using tracking software. Great for productivity? Or a massive invasion of privacy?
Covid restrictions are starting to ease, and soon the global workforce will swap their comfy sweats for a morning commute.
It won’t happen overnight, however.
Leaders like UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson want people to stay spread out, staggering shifts and working remotely where possible.
And some companies may even adapt policies to give employees the option of permanently working from home.
That leaves managers with the task of keeping staff productive from afar.
There are all kinds of ways this can be done, but one method stands out for its rising popularity (and sheer invasiveness): tracking software.
Here’s a look at what the software does, why companies use it, and its effectiveness.
Staff tracking software gives employers the ability to keep close tabs on employee.
Features vary, but this kind of software lets companies track everything a staff member does on a company computer.
This ranges from recording all websites visited, to taking screenshots every few minutes and sending them back to the boss.
Virtual monitoring isn’t anything new; IT and HR teams have used such tools for years. What’s new is the huge uptake in surveillance software subscriptions since the pandemic started.
In fact, one surveillance software company, Hubstaff, saw a 95% increase in new customers in March over February.
Is it overkill to record everything an employee does?
Not at all, says Courtney Cavey, Hubstaff’s Marketing Director. In fact, she welcomes being monitored with Hubstaff’s own software.
“The freedom it ultimately grants is priceless,” Cavey says. “[My boss] knows I’m working when I say I am because he can see that I’m tracking time and activity levels, and completing tasks, so he doesn’t have to look over my shoulder and constantly ask for updates.”
It’s certainly one way to make sure staff are productive. But it isn’t the only way.
Trust over anxiety
With all the other productivity tools for remote teams, including Slack and Zoom, why is surveillance software so popular?
It’s all about control, according to executive consultant Lloyd Bashkin.
“It’s perfectly understandable that CEOs will feel anxious at a time like this,” he says.
“[I]t’s a basic human need to want to feel a certain amount of control, and when that is stripped away, bingo – anxiety spikes.
“So rather than see [computer surveillance] as paranoia, for most CEOs it’s just a natural inclination to feel a certain amount of control.”
As CEO of management consultancy Lloyd Scott & Company, based in New Jersey, Bashkin says times of crisis only intensify a person’s leadership style.
“The perception of inescapable fear, such as COVID-19, will amplify a CEO’s behaviour – so untrusting CEOs become less trusting (as a way to relieve anxiety) and more mature, trusting CEOs become more trusting,” he says.
Loosening the reins
As an example, Bashkin points to a recent client – a CEO who clashed with his head of procurement.
The CEO had a long running dispute with the head of procurement, accusing him of having a negative attitude and of letting quality slip. Then the pandemic hit and remote working only made the conflict worse.
The CEO’s solution was to monitor the head’s computer activity closely. If that didn’t work, he’d simply fire him.
Luckily, a conversation with Bashkin helped the CEO realise the problem was his own trust issues. So the CEO gave the head of procurement more freedom to do his job without interference, and the problems disappeared almost overnight.
Output over input
That’s because staff realise when they aren’t trusted by their manager, and close monitoring can be demotivating.
“If employees feel their manager is looking over their shoulder at every moment, trust goes out the window immediately,” says Corporate Rebels’ Pim de Morree.
He thinks surveillance software is ‘micro-management gone wild.’
“Apparently, employers don’t feel the staff they hired are capable of doing a job without them tracking their activities,” he says. “It’s the workplace equivalent of a prisoner’s ankle bracelet.”
Instead of focusing on how work gets done, he says the real measure of productivity is what gets done.
“Figuring out how to measure that is the real problem to solve,” de Moree says.
However, not all surveillance stems from mistrust or control issues.
There are vital reasons for monitoring staff computer use, like protecting networks from malware or other viruses.
In fact, some companies are required to track employee activities to meet legal obligations. The key to doing it well is transparency.
Employers should let employees know what information they collect and why, says Ashwin Krishnan, tech ethicist and COO of UberKnowledge.
He advises companies to explain staff monitoring “not in legalese terms, but in actual terms of what this means for [the employee].”
“When employees can see the full extent of the responsibility and diligence shown by leaders, it breeds trust,” says Krishnan.
That said, it takes more than transparency to increase productivity, Krishnan says.
Remote staff are far more productive when they feel supported – especially in these unusual times.
“Suddenly, the employee’s home life needs to become part of the manager’s discovery process,” he says.
“Not every employee may be willing to share this but letting them know that they have a supportive ear if they need it is crucial. [A]dapting previously scheduled work meetings (adjust timing, duration, frequency) to deal with this at-home reality shows empathy.”
Such empathy can also help customers be more patient with a company’s employees.
Kristy Knichel, CEO of Knichel Logistics, a shipping logistics company in Pennsylvania, recently wrote to customers explaining her team’s new work situation.
Many of her staff are working remotely for the first time, and some even need company internet hotspots since they don’t have Wi-Fi at home.
“We understand that our employees are accustomed to the ease of communicating with one another in person in the office, so this has been quite a change to adjust to,” she writes.
“[O]ur team has made the transition smoothly and we hope that you have not experienced any disruption.”
Destination, not the journey
It isn’t easy to manage a remote team – especially during a pandemic.
It requires trust and empathy, while letting go of the need to control every employee move.
That’s why the best way to improve productivity is following de Morree’s advice and focus on what an employee delivers – whether in the office or not – instead of how they delivered it.
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