Track productivity without bossware and employee monitoring

To say the absolute least, the pandemic changed a lot about how we work. As safety precautions turned lively offices into wastelands of empty chairs, people started scratching their heads wondering whether they actually needed to work from a desk in somebody else’s rental space. Eventually, office restrictions lifted, but working in pajamas? That part wasn’t so easy to undo.

Today, remote jobs are the norm, or at least they’re becoming such. One of the first questions interviewees ask these days is whether or not earning a paycheck means leaving the comforts of home, and if an employer insists on in-office attendance, they usually end up shorthanded.

In the wake of all the changes, some employers began to wonder how it would be possible to track employee productivity when they can’t see the employees doing actual work. Enter monitoring tools.

Snooping with software surveillance

Remote work exposed a major wrinkle in the workplace: setting and reaching goals wasn’t enough. Somehow, physical presence was required as well, so to bridge the attendance gap, some employers required their teams to show up to the office once or twice a week. Some required team members to appear on webcams in full work attire. Anything to keep up appearances.

But then things got a little weird. Bossware, as it’s called, started to be installed on employee computers. Rather than checking in to see how things were going, these apps granted managers unprecedented access to monitor the activities of all their team members by tracking keystrokes, reading chats, generating productivity scores, and even using spyware to track social media usage.

Worst of all, some companies didn’t even tell their employees about the surveillance software, hoping to keep productivity monitoring a secret indefinitely. Spoiler alert: they didn’t.

What it feels like to be spied on

Perhaps the most unnerving part of bossware was learning that it didn’t originate with the pandemic. In fact, many of these productivity tracking programs were used in secret long before remote work was popular. It shocked many of us to learn that trust was a commodity even more rare than previously thought.

Let’s be clear: spying on your employees isn’t just unethical, it’s plain wrong. You make a deal with the devil when you use bossware to track productivity. Rather than trusting employees to use their time wisely and judging them by the actual work they do, surveillance software sends a clear message. A message that your workplace is one where even the slightest suspicion of remote employees warrants an invasion of their privacy; something which will destroy retention in the long run.

Along with the lack of privacy, being the object of constant surveillance is bad for productivity. Something happens in the brain akin to panic when it knows it’s being watched, and the result is a lack of focus that makes task management a lot harder.

bossware-600x400-2With surveillance, work environments may suffer:

  • A lack of productivity
  • Employee distrust and resentment
  • Low retention
  • Disunity among team workflows
  • Possible lawsuits

And since few laws exist to monitor the monitors, companies are getting a little greedy with the amount of information they collect. The Electronic Frontier Foundation minces no words about the plight: “Under current U.S. law, employers have too much leeway to install surveillance software on devices they own.” On top of that, there doesn’t seem to be any rush to outlaw these programs. To the contrary, in fact, business is booming for the software companies making these products.

This isn’t the information you’re looking for

As an employer, you need to ask yourself what you actually want to learn through employee monitoring software. Do you suspect someone’s work is suffering because they waste too much time online? Are you worried an employee is badmouthing the company? If so, just go with your gut. Have a conversation, get a Performance Improvement Plan going, but don’t add to the stress of everyone else’s workday by introducing espionage into the workplace.

Look, as workers, we get that bosses want to know what we’re doing. We understand that they have to check in to make sure we’re being productive. All of that is okay. Having work goals, productivity targets, and more is not a new concept. What’s not okay is having Slack monitor every single keystroke so they can see what we’re typing when we have a second to ourselves. Reading personal messages, gleaning passwords, accessing personal data—these are not things our bosses should have access to.

Even worse, these tools don’t necessarily directly monitor productivity. For many employees, stepping away from the computer to think about a problem, or taking a break to address a personal issue helps them improve productivity when they get back to the task at hand.

If there’s a problem with employee activity, the best thing to do is to talk to your employee. If they’re suddenly not completing as much work as they did before, or the quality dropped, that’s a fine conversation to have and metric to hold them accountable by.

How should managers monitor productivity?

Hopefully, by now you see why using these programs is a detriment to the workplace. However, that still doesn’t solve the problem of how remote teams make it more difficult to track productivity. So let’s talk about it.

First off, set clear expectations. Far too many companies have an attitude of, “if you don’t have something to do, find something to do,” which places the onus of productivity on people with no business making those decisions. Think about it: do you really want the newbie reorganizing company files just because they had to kill time?

If employees don’t have work to do, it’s not their fault. Installing tracking tools to punish them for it only reinforces that management is failing them. Meaningful work drives retention, so when employees are stuck doing things no one cares about, what they need is better project planning, not more monitoring. Ensure that employees have adequate work available to them. If there’s a chance they’ll run out of tasks for the day, or have downtime between tasks, provide something for them to do during that time. This could involve doing required training, reading up on the latest trends on industry sites, or some other productive use of downtime.

Second, base your metrics on achievements, not optics. Resist the urge to scold employees when they’re not glued to their monitors typing a million words a minute. Most employees want to do good work—give them something to work toward, rather than pushing them into meaningless occupations (which usually leads to burnout). Gaging how much an employee accomplishes in a given time, and the quality of the work, is much more meaningful than minutes sitting at a computer.

Finally, give employees ownership over projects wherever possible. When workers get to put their own names on things, they are more likely to do good work. Conversely, when they’re just cogs in their manager’s machine, they may not find it all that important to stay on task.

Track time, not activity

Instead of seeing what employees do when they’re not working, why not track what they do when they are working? Platforms like Tick provide project bases to log time against, providing a clearer picture of how long it takes people to get their work done. Who knows? You may find that your lollygaggers are actually your most efficient workers, and the reason they look like slackers is because they don’t have enough to do.

In the end, it’s a win-win. Employees have work to do, and managers have a tracking software platform to keep them busy, forging a connection within teams that drives goodwill and encourages productivity. These are the kinds of foundations that create strong businesses, not spy software.

Take advantage of regular check-ins

No employee is perfect. Okay some are, but most of us just need a nudge in the right direction from time to time, and those conversations have to come from managers. Make sure to schedule regular check-ins with your teams to see how work is going.

Work takes up almost half of our waking hours. Like anything in life, routine can easily become rigmarole that leads to complacency. Without communication, complacency gets misinterpreted as apathy or even incompetence, leading to doubt that festers and creates broken bridges, confusion, anger, and ultimately disappointment.

Just talk to your employees! Give them a judgment-free listening ear that respects their feelings. You’ll usually find they’re more eager to be successful than you thought. Most of us just want to be heard, so provide that space at work.

Give recognition where recognition is due

Nothing motivates quite like a personal compliment, be it a sincere pat on the back or a nice bonus check. Showing people they matter is a hallmark of great companies, and it’s easy to see why. People love recognition. Taking time to recognize an employee’s hard work isn’t always the highest priority on most managers’ lists, but the dividends are huge.

If an employee is having a hard time succeeding at work, try giving them a win here and there. You may find that it helps them grow and settle into a work ethic you can count on later. At the very least, you’re not hurting anyone by making people feel good about their work.

Your teams are your responsibility

If you’re tempted to spy on your employees, ask yourself how things got this bad. If you’re at the point where bossware seems like the best option, then there certainly are problems. And bossware is only likely to make them worse.

Your teams deserve your trust, and with a little effort and enthusiasm, you can create a culture where people want to do good instead of going to great lengths to hide being bad.