Achieving Excellence

What's the Big Deal With Remote Productivity Monitoring?

by Hazel Butler
What's the Big Deal With Remote Productivity Monitoring?

Remote employee monitoring is controversial. Yet it can enable workplaces to offer more freedoms, and be a motivational force. Here’s how...

With most office workers sitting in full view and in earshot of each other, there is usually an unspoken (or perhaps spoken) air of accountability in any office. Arrive on time, stay focused, be productive. If you don't, everyone will know. I certainly recall loud whispers about a colleague who obsessively played candy crush in full view of the office for hours every day. He was fired.

But if he'd been remote, would we even have realized? (And does the answer matter?)

For many employers, past resistance to allowing employees to work remotely was based around uncertainty that they would still be productive long term without the accepted forms of monitoring inherent to office life. The pandemic turned all that upside down, of course, with many employers discovering their teams can be productive remotely after all; and many workers now unwilling to return to the inflexible office lifestyle they always considered normal.

Yet the crisis-fueled rise of remote working has given workers the opportunity to escape the monitors. They can get away with a lot more nowadays – and while most workers are honest, there are some egregious examples of people playing on their phone all day, moonlighting at a second job, and even outsourcing their existing job to someone else while they kick back and relax.

While that may sound extreme—the reality is that all global companies will encounter all forms of fraud at some point. Any company offering global-scale remote work needs a solution to mitigate this. At Crossover, we experience fraud in over 20% of tests from certain countries. Most companies avoid certain countries because of the high fraud – but this hurts the honest people. By using productivity monitoring software like WorkSmart, Crossover is able to mitigate fraud risk enough to enable trustworthy individuals from those countries to shine. These monitoring and antifraud measures are stricter than workers in Silicon Valley are accustomed to, but given Crossover’s mission to provide opportunity on a global basis without discrimination, it's necessary.

What needs to happen for more companies to have enough confidence to give workers the remote freedoms they crave? A lot of companies, including Amazon, are now looking to remote productivity monitoring software to fill the gap.

With more workers asking to work remotely, employers are navigating questions of how to make the transition without losing all accountability measures. The answer is most likely to be a quid pro quo approach to productivity monitoring, where some concessions are made by the worker – accepting a degree of accountability via monitoring – in exchange for the privilege of autonomy and convenience that remote work affords.

The Pros And Cons Of Employee Monitoring

Employee monitoring often gets a bad rep, and in some ways, that makes sense. Nobody likes the idea of ‘big brother’ constantly watching. Others perceive it as a lack of trust. Still more would argue that it’s indicative of a culture that values output over quality and creativity.

But whether we like it or not, it's not realistic for remote workers to expect zero accountability. These same people are quite content to work in full view of others in a bricks-and-mortar workplace for the same reason they feel no fear at airport security: they have nothing to hide. And the same is true for remote workers. Monitoring software only feels scary because it's unfamiliar. But the honest majority need not fear the systems that are put in place to prevent abuse from the dishonest few. Far from it – now you'll have concrete evidence of how hard you're working!

The Benefits Of Productivity Monitoring

With the fearmongering that comes with new technology and change management, the opportunity and benefits are often overlooked, both by employees and employers.

Increased Productivity

Research has found that human performance improves with an audience. One study specifically found there was a boost in productivity when employees knew superiors were watching. It's human instinct.

Losing this effect is one of the biggest barriers for companies to make the shift to fully remote. For employees to accept a degree of productivity monitoring is a small compromise when it unlocks all the benefits of the remote work lifestyle – from living closer to family, to increased schedule flexibility, and saving money on everything from rent to lunch.

When you offer incentives and rewards at the same time, you compound this productivity boost into something that can positively impact your profits. At the same time having additional insight into performance allows you to create more appropriate rewards for particularly high-quality work or enhanced productivity.

Improved Team Performance

Like sports coaches using fitbits to gather insights on athlete performance, the data gathered on how individuals are performing during the course of a work day enables forging stronger teams better able to work as an effective unit. Maximize strengths, minimize weaknesses, and create teams that are well balanced and have the tools to collaborate effectively and ultimately deliver higher quality work in faster timeframes.

If some team members struggle to meet productivity goals, it provides a concrete and clear structure to discuss it, find solutions and empower them to improve. This catches issues earlier, preventing greater losses and allowing the whole team to have confidence that everyone is contributing.

Cost-Effectiveness

Responsible employee monitoring will save businesses money in the long run. You can find money leaks where employees are inadvertently costing your business money and plug the holes. Beyond the accidental, you can see where people are actively wasting company time, and even committing time theft.

And The Downsides

As with all things in life, there are downsides to employee monitoring.

The main downside to productivity monitoring is the culture risk of employees feeling their privacy has been violated, or that their employer doesn’t trust or respect them.

To counter this, it's essential to:

  1. Clearly communicate the rationale for the monitoring – and that honest workers have nothing to fear from it.
  2. Remember that productivity software is a data input, not the entire story. It can provide insight as to a worker's performance but there are plenty of legitimate reasons why certain tasks or roles may have periods with lower keystrokes. Context is key, as is communication: it's important for workers to know that their supervisors understand this and they won't be unfairly penalized for logical variances.
  3. Have an 'off switch' where workers can temporarily deactivate the software when they need to do a non-work related task, so they understand they are only being monitored when they are 'on the clock' – and how to get privacy when they need it.
  4. Give workers a way to view their productivity data, and delete any timecards they're not comfortable with – especially if screenshots or webcam photos are involved. There's no need for the data to go into a black hole – this is not big brother.
  5. Be flexible with time management wherever possible. In most jobs, it doesn't matter what time someone starts their shift, or how long they take for lunch – as long as they are pulling their weight and getting the work done. Don't sweat the small stuff.

When monitoring is approached from a place of informed consent, and workers understand both the boundaries in place and the privileges that they stand to gain by making this small concession, it's a lot less scary – and can even be empowering.

Monitoring Productivity Remotely vs In An Office

The most common data tracked by productivity monitoring software is:

Email tracking surveys emails sent to and from your employees’ company inbox. This isn't unique to remote work and has been common in major companies for decades.

Phone tracking monitors phone calls and voicemail. This used to be common but happens far less now that most people rely on internet-based forms of communication more than phone.

Keystroke counters track the number of mouse clicks and keyboard presses. Note: this does not track what was typed. It's very different from keylogging which is invasive and carries privacy risks such as exposing passwords.

Active application monitoring tools show you exactly how your employees are spending their time while they're working. This can be very useful for performance analysis and coaching because the correct distribution of app time can be quantified. This can be as useful for office workers as remote workers.

Screenshots at regular intervals. This ensures that people are truly focused on work while they're being paid.

Webcam photos at regular intervals. This is one of the only ways to prevent major fraud like outsourcing.

Productivity Monitoring As A Motivational Force

When your team is working with a collaboration tool, like Worksmart Pro (a calendar management and productivity tool), you are effectively giving everyone access to a ‘Fitbit’ of productivity.

Having an analytically backed tool at your disposal that knows exactly what actions need to be taken in order to achieve your goals and hit your targets is incredibly motivational.

Employers must be mindful and allow space for the different working styles and varying needs of their employees. Once you understand that the value of an employee does not correlate 100% to their monitoring data, it's possible to create a monitoring approach that is both effective for your company and motivational for your team.