Is it acceptable to monitor remote workers?

Blog, Heidi Williams

Is it acceptable to monitor remote workers?  And if so, to what extent?

The naysayers against monitoring remote workers (or monitoring in-office workers for that matter, there’s really no difference) strongly advocate for trust, transparency, clear workflows and regular communication and there’s no doubt that these are vitally important characteristics in managing any kind of work.  Technology can facilitate these key ingredients but certainly can’t replace them.

Productivity gains?

However, the truth is – particularly in larger organisations that may have gotten flabby around the edges, or have unmotivated staff who are managed by unmotivated managers – it is possible to see gains in productivity when you get clearer about where time is being spent and bring the employee on board with questions around whether that is the best use of their time, given the context around the job.

As an example, many years ago when we started tracking time at a web development and design company, it became apparent that one of the designers had spent over 30 hours on a logo.  Now, bearing in mind the logo existed already, it was just a revamp, and also that this Designer had a ton of other work they needed to get to but was blocked behind completing that logo – seeing the time-tracked data was a real wake-up call for him.  Without that hard “evidence” he hadn’t realised the degree of inefficiency that had built up – when we looked in more detail it was evident that, like buying shoes, he’d actually nailed it within the first few hours but nonetheless kept tweaking and titivating to get to perfection; the changes he was making all but invisible to anyone other than a designer’s eye.  Those tweaks then took longer than they should have because of micro interruptions to complete small, quick jobs for other team members – coming back to the logo design after these interruptions was basically like reading the same line in a novel a hundred times over, and we all know how frustrating that feels.

What we learnt

Implementing a time tracking solution taught us two things – that working on urgent quick fixes and design tasks simultaneously, massively increased the time it took to complete design tasks (duh, so obvious – creative tasks clearly need to be uninterrupted for maximum efficiency) and that logging time against a project does actually increase accountability for it, because it connects the employee back into the business and its objectives, with a discussion around the reality of billable hours for a logo redesign and the commercial perspective of how much time (and money) should be spent on a project.  Tracking time undoubtedly changed the way we worked for the better.

Managed carefully, time tracking tools provide a clear and often vital way of helping organisations to monitor the time spent on billable projects and therefore the profitability of those projects – workers understand and get onboard with that imperative, it’s basic commercial sense.  With remote workers, these tools can become even more valuable since they take the place of presenteeism, they take the guesswork out of whether a worker has been putting the hours in, and remove the fluff, bluster and misdirection caused by general busy-ness. Fundamentally, you still need to see the output, you still need to see that work is being completed not just that time is being spent on it, but having the tools to measure the hours spent on something means any discussions about output and productivity can be based on data rather than emotion or speculation. It removes the uncertainty about what an employee has been doing all week, and pivots the question from the vague but confrontational “why did that take so long” to “is x hours spent on x project commercially appropriate”. It certainly helped us to dig into why inefficiencies were happening and what we could do to tackle them.

What about more “invasive” monitoring technologies?

But what about the newer trend toward arguably more invasive monitoring of employees’ activity – software that takes screenshots periodically through the day, tracks which websites are being visited and for how long and even takes photos from the desk-cam to identify if and when the remote worker is “present”.  Are these tools helpful or damaging?  Some of the functionality around the presentee-ism desk-cams is potentially useful for distributed teams in knowing when team members are at their desk in order to message or call them, but this could just as easily be achieved through project management or messaging apps which show the person to be live.  And with modern technologies, you don’t need to be at your desktop to be working. You might have taken a break from sitting and be taking a skype call on your mobile.  Is it fair that employers know exactly which websites an employee is looking at through their work day, do they have the “right” to know – in employing that worker, do they own their entire attention for those dedicated hours?  Does it depend on the role?  A creative role might have an employee coming up with ideas in the shower or over breakfast, but that employee might take spend time through the day, in non-work interactions on social media.  Is that a fair exchange?  Shouldn’t the measure of success be based on output not process?  Would a less distracted employee achieve more output, or are those distractions a vital part of what makes them so productive and creative?  What about more customer focused roles, or roles in which volume plays a key part – if an employer monitors activity and finds their best performer is actually a regular user of other websites, will asking the employee to refrain from those sites actually increase their output, or create resentments that will see it decrease?

These are sensitive questions which tackle at their very heart the question of what it means to be an employee and the extent of ownership of the employer over the employee.  Yet, as remote workforces and distributed teams grow across the globe, these tools are increasingly in use.  Will employers find, as we did with time management tools, that monitoring has a positive impact on performance and productivity?  Or will these tools cause resentment?  Do “good” workers who have “nothing to hide” not mind being monitored or does it undermine their sense of autonomy and responsibility even when they’re proud of their performance and productivity?  We’ll be digging into questions like these in our upcoming webinar series and talking to businesses with remote workers and distributed teams to find out what works best for them and, if they are using monitoring tools, how they’ve implemented them and how their workers have responded to being monitored.

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