Employee Monitoring Not the Solution

The world works from home now. 

Okay, not everyone, but a much larger portion than in previous years. Remote work was already on the rise in the years leading up to 2020, and then everything shut down, forcing millions to start working from home for the first time. 

The trend won’t be going away any time soon. Many large companies have decided that they will allow employees to work from home for an extended period of time, or even permanently in some cases.  

Of course, this raises new challenges for managers and leaders. Digital distractions are abundant, especially when working from home. How do you ensure that your teams are working and collaborating productively while working remotely? How can you be sure that employees aren’t browsing Facebook or watching Netflix when they should be working? 

Many companies think that employee monitoring is the solution. They use technology to try to determine whether employees are engaging in digital activities, such as browsing social media, that aren’t related to work. This was already happening in prior years, but has ramped up even more in 2020. As Glenn Rees notes:

A 2018 Gartner survey found that more than 50 per cent of large corporations were monitoring their employees in “non-traditional ways” – up from 30 per cent in 2015. The techniques used ranged from analysing employees’ emails and social media posts, to scrutinizing who they were meeting with and gathering their biometric data.

What’s clear is that many companies are worried that their employees will fritter away their time on digital distractions instead of getting their work done. 

But while some monitoring, such as having employees track billable hours, can improve efficiency and make life easier, is monitoring employee activity really the best way to solve this problem? 

Maybe not. 

How Does Employee Monitoring Actually Work? 

Before we explore the ramifications of keeping close tabs on employees, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page regarding how it actually works. 

There are many different ways to monitor employees, with some being much more invasive than others. At a high level, the methods can be broken down into performance monitoring versus activity monitoring. 

Performance monitoring focuses on the overall job performance of an employee. Do they attend meetings? Are they meeting billable hours requirements? Are they working sufficient hours in a day and finishing tasks and projects in reasonable amounts of time? Overall, performance monitoring is significantly less invasive than activity monitoring. 

With activity monitoring, employers look very closely at employee activities throughout the day to determine if they’re being productive. This can include everything from desk/chair sensors, looking at internet and email activity, analyzing employee chats, screenshots of employee computer screens, and even keystroke logging and eye tracking. 

Here’s the big question that must be asked. While using monitoring technology may give employers more insight into how their employees behave during the day, does it actually help those employees be more productive? 

The Problem With Controlling Productivity

To answer the question, let’s take a step back and look at the big picture. What problems are we trying to solve with employee monitoring? 

Essentially, we’re trying to ensure productivity stays high and that managers have a sense of control. We want to make sure that goals and targets are hit on time and that proper levels of productivity are maintained. We want to help employees communicate and collaborate effectively while working remotely. And we want to know that employees are actually working the hours they say they are. 

These objectives aren’t inherently bad in any way. Managers and leaders need to know that their teams are performing well, whether working in the office or remotely. 

The argument for employee tracking is often along the lines of what Brad Miller, CEO of Awareness Technologies, said, “People act better when they know they are being watched.”

And there is at least a grain of truth to what Miller says. Employee monitoring has been shown to slightly increase extrinsic motivation. In other words, when an employee knows they’re being watched, they feel more external pressure to stay on task. But extrinsic motivation isn’t necessarily a good thing. After all, you can create extrinsic motivation through all kinds of negative strategies, like fear or intimidation. 

What’s more, there is also a dark side to monitoring that is often overlooked.

The Dark Side Of Employee Monitoring

There are a number of significant negative effects that come from employee monitoring. 

First and foremost is the question of privacy and legality. There are a host of regulations that dictate who and what you can monitor, and if you’re not careful you can easily overstep your bounds. If you insist on monitoring employees, you absolutely must ensure that you’re on solid legal ground. 

But beyond this, monitoring can be seriously detrimental to employee morale. When you constantly keep tabs on employees, you are saying that you don’t trust them. That you don’t believe they’ll act in the best interests of the company. That they need to be kept in line at all times. 

Patricia Sweeney, a human resources manager, says, “Establishing a culture of making employees believe that they are being monitored absolutely sows the seeds for mistrust, poor morale and the overpowering attitude of elite-ism.”

When morale is low, employees feel less loyal to the company and not inclined to put forth their best effort. 

One study revealed that employee monitoring leads to a significant decrease in employee motivation. This, in turn, can lead to lower employee satisfaction and higher turnover rates. Lower levels of motivation also seriously limit a person’s ability to be productive, which is ironic, given that monitoring is often seen as a way to keep employees productive. 

An additional problem is that monitoring software often relies on algorithms to do the heavy lifting. Though we may like to think that algorithms are fair and impartial, time and time again this has proven not to be the case. They’ve proven to be ageist, ableist, sexist, and racist. 

The bottom line is that, for the most part, the benefits of monitoring employees are heavily outweighed by the downsides. Remote workers are already prone to issues of isolation and burnout due to overwork. Monitoring their activities adds yet more pressure to them. 

So what is a better solution? 

Measure Results, Not Activity

A much more effective practice is to simply measure results instead of monitoring activity. Instead of focusing on every action an employee takes, define clear goals and targets for them and then evaluate how successful they are in hitting them. 

Grey Idol, cofounder of PayrollFunding, says, “I honestly don’t mind how many cat videos they watch during the day as long as they can deliver when it counts. I hire adults, not children, and I trust them to manage their time properly.”

This is similar to how Netflix treats their employees. In the book Great Leaders Have No Rules, Kevin Kruse writes:

Netflix leaders believe that responsible people–the people every company wants to hire–are not only worthy of freedom, they thrive on it. Creating an environment where these individuals are not inhibited by a myriad of rules allows them to become the best version of themselves.

The no rules, deliver when it counts approach communicates that you trust employees to do the company right and to work effectively without micromanagement. It allows you to create a culture of trust within your company while also ensuring that you continue to achieve key objectives. 

When you focus on results instead of activity, employees don’t feel micromanaged and are more engaged with their jobs. And, according to Gallup, higher engagement leads to significantly less absenteeism and higher profitability. 

Instead of using employee monitoring software, give your team the tools they need to be productive. Team management software, such as Trello, Monday.com, Asana, or Jira allow you to track results and keep projects on track without monitoring every move an employee makes. You can ensure that deadlines are hit and key objectives are met without micromanaging people to death. 

man sits at home working on his computer and sketching

Create A Culture Of Trust and Autonomy

In addition to measuring results, you can also work hard to create a company culture where trust, autonomy, and feedback are integral. 

When you allow employees to set their own boundaries, it communicates trust and gives them autonomy. Instead of closely monitoring their online activities and flagging every time they go on Facebook, provide them with tools like Freedom so that they can personally control their online distractions. 

Then they can decide when they want to browse Reddit and when they need to buckle down and get work done. They can create prescheduled focus sessions and even block the internet entirely if they need to. Instead of looking over employees shoulders to ensure that they don’t waste time on digital distractions, you empower employees to take personal responsibility for how they spend their time. 

Culture > Policy

In the end, culture always beats policy. If you can build a strong culture where employees feel trusted and valued, you won’t need to worry about monitoring all of their activities. They’ll want to be productive and give the company their best. 

Will they occasionally waste some time during the day? Sure. But that’s human. No one can be a nonstop productivity machine. And if your company culture is strong and employees are engaged, you can be confident that they’ll get things done in an efficient manner. 

Focus on results and culture, not minute by minute activities.