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Can Monitoring Remote Workers Lead To A More Productive Workforce?

How can you monitor employees’ workloads as a remote manager without breaching employee trust?

The transition to remote and hybrid working has transformed the lives of many office workers. For many of us, it’s changed everything about our jobs – our approach to work, our personal relationships, our daily routines.  

As something that was extremely rare in 2019, working from home for all or some of the week is now very common for office workers. Now, in 2023, around one in three of us have some kind of hybrid work set-up.   For many people working from home can be hugely beneficial, offering a better work-life balance. Cutting out the commute time gives people more time to enjoy their personal lives more both before and after work, and it offers employees the flexibility to arrange work around their responsibilities.    

Working from home clearly works well for many people. In fact, people value the ability to work from home two or three days a week about the same as they would an eight per cent pay rise, says Nick Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford University.  

Can remote working breed distrust?

However, remote working can also have some downsides – particularly if your manager watches your every move during work hours.  

According to a recent report in the New York Times, eight out of the 10 largest private US employers use software to track the productivity of their employees at home or in the office. This software told employers how long employees were logged on to their computers and how much time they were spending on work-related activities.  

“Day-to-day monitoring leaves remote workers wondering why their managers are making such frequent demands, which may leave them questioning their own ability and putting themselves down…”

– Prof Schyns

The Harvard Business Review explored some of the ways employees are being monitored online. They gave the example of a social media marketing company in Florida which installed software on their employees’ work computers that takes screenshots of their desktops every 10 minutes, and records how much time they spent on different activities. This data was then used to determine productivity levels of staff and monitor individuals who broke the rules.  

Similarly, Amazon tracks their employees’ phones with an app called Mentor to monitor their efficiency and look for instances of unsafe driving. It has also started putting AI equipped cameras in some delivery vans.  

Is monitoring employees online an effective way to boost productivity?

A recent Harvard Business Review study that surveyed more than 100 employees across the US found that monitored employees were also substantially more likely to:  

  • Take unapproved breaks
  • Disregard instructions
  • Damage workplace property
  • Steal office equipment
  • Purposefully work at a slow pace

The study then asked another 200 U.S.- based employees to complete a series of tasks, telling half of them that they would be working under electronic surveillance. They then gave them an opportunity to cheat, and found that those who were told they were being monitored were actually more likely to cheat than those who didn’t think they were being monitored.  

The researchers suggested that this was partly because employees who were being monitored felt less responsible for their own conduct, making them more likely to act immorally.  

Another factor may be that daily monitoring can lead to remote workers feeling that their managers have less trust in them, reveals research from NEOMA Business School.  

According to the researchers, when working from home, employees can feel that they have less autonomy and are under constant surveillance if monitored too frequently. This study analysed survey data from 450 employees at UK-based firms.  

These feelings can be exacerbated if managers’ behaviour is unpredictable, they say.

“Day-to-day monitoring leaves remote workers wondering why their managers are making such frequent demands, which may leave them questioning their own ability and putting themselves down,” says Professor Schyns, Distinguished Professor of People and Organisations at NEOMA, who co-authored the study. “At the end of the day, some employees feel physically and intellectually exhausted.”  

How can managers build trust in the workplace?

So how can you monitor employees’ workloads as a remote manager without making your employees feel like they aren’t trusted?  

The researchers at NEOMA Business School recommend that managers establish clear guidelines for checking on employees’ progress. Once communicated, these guidelines must be observed, they add.  

It’s also down to business leaders to ensure their managers are properly trained to tackle the issue, say the researchers. Business leaders should provide managers with guidance about their conduct and define appropriate benchmarks for managerial behaviour.

What approaches do you think work best for keeping in touch with remote staff and colleagues? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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