Before the coronavirus pandemic, many companies had doubts about remote work. They thought employees worked better in person. They worried about the security of business data on personal networks. But most importantly, they struggled to understand how they would monitor employees in a remote setting and hold them accountable.
How do you know if a remote employee is actually working? Sure, they may be responding to emails, but what if they watch Netflix as they do it? How do you know that they aren’t taking breaks to enjoy a power nap or finish chores? These questions hounded employers, who quickly worked to install or mandate tracking tools.
Monitoring software can provide insight into the work lives of remote employees. However, some people say that it crosses a line and exceeds the boundaries of micromanagement. If you are considering using employee monitoring software—or are just curious about it—keep reading to learn more.
Employee Monitoring Comes in All Shapes and Sizes
One of the most important caveats to “employee monitoring” is that it’s a catchall phrase referring to managers tracking the work of employees to make sure they aren’t wasting time (and therefore company money and resources). When you’re talking about employee monitoring software, it can have many meanings—some more intrusive than others.
Employee monitoring tools can be virtually downloaded onto team computers and set up with a self-report system where employees can record what they do. Some are even built into common office tools. A few examples of employee monitoring software include:
- Employee time clocks that track when employees log in and out of work online
- Website tracking tools that record how much time employees spend on social media and news sites
- Keystroke tracking that reports how many keystrokes per hour an employee averages (ensuring that team members don’t walk away from their computers for hours on end)
- Screenshot apps that take random pictures of employee monitors to make sure they are on work-related pages
- Access to private messages and conversations (like on Slack)Notifications when an employee isn’t paying attention to a video call on tools like Zoom
As you can see, there is a big difference between managers seeing an employee’s timesheet and reading an entire conversation thread on a messaging application. Both are employee monitoring solutions, but one is more invasive than the other. While you may not need access to private messages or conversations, other companies may find value in that level of employee monitoring.
Should You Monitor Your Employees Constantly?
As an employer, you don’t want to lose working hours to employees who play on social media or get distracted throughout the day. However, this fear of lost productivity shouldn’t drive you to monitor everything your employees do while working remotely.
In 2018, NPR’s Planet Money discussed Goodhart’s Law, in which employees will always find a way to make the numbers look good, even if there are some unintended consequences.
For example, if you want your employees to work 6 hours on a project, they will fill those 6 hours (even if it only takes them 4). Your monitoring software could be a key example of Goodhart’s Law: you will see what you want to see. Sure, your employees will seem like dedicated workers, but there may be something they aren’t telling you.
An active worker isn’t always a productive worker. Just because someone always seems busy doesn’t mean they are the best person in the office. Consider the phrase “work smarter, not harder.” A busy-bee will work 8 hours and put up good monitoring numbers, but the smart bee will get the work done quickly and move on to a new company project.
Good monitoring can’t replace great employee morale—you may risk lowering morale in the name of employee monitoring.
Are Reports Accurate?
Even if you implement an employee-tracking tool, the reports might not be entirely accurate. This inaccuracy is because monitoring tools hardly offer “one-size-fits-all” solutions.
For example, how can you monitor the social media use of your marketing team? Their job is to be on social media throughout the day to promote your brand and identify trends. Alternatively, how can you track the attention of employees who click away on a Zoom call to read a relevant article that was mentioned on the call?
What seems like a valuable tool when you begin may be completely irrelevant to many situations and job responsibilities.
Is This a Good Use of Your Time?
The final question to ask is whether you, as a manager, should be spending time monitoring your team’s activities throughout the day. While you may find value in uncovering wasted work hours of your employees, you could also be spending valuable time reviewing these reports and tracking their activities.
Could your time be spent in better ways than watching what your other employees are doing?
In most cases, managers have more pressing and important activities during the day than monitoring employees. Time is money, and if you’re spending time on employee monitoring, the opportunity cost could be greater than what was lost by the employee in the first place.
There is no right answer as to whether employee monitoring software is the best way to manage a business. However, you need to weigh the costs and benefits.
Will any increase in productivity overcome the loss of morale that comes from limited autonomy and micro-managing? Will you spend more time monitoring employees rather than leading them? Focus on these big picture ideas as you look at the products that are available in today’s market.