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Workplace and productivity monitoring for remote tech workers: Yay or nay?

Man looking through window blinds in the office
Source: Noelle Otto (via Pexels)

Remember Sting's legendary lyrics – every breath you take, every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you. Yikes! As romantic (or rather creepy) as it may sound in this classic pop song, it can be a deal-breaker when it comes to employer-employee relations, especially when working in the tech and IT industry.

Workplace and productivity monitoring is a topic that often comes up in IT recruitment. It has been on the rise especially due to remote work conditions during the pandemic. For example, in 2021, the percentage of workers in the UK reporting workplace surveillance and monitoring rose to 60% from 53% in 2020.

One of the main reasons why employee monitoring tools are in demand is employers can easily use them to identify productivity issues and performance problems. However, from the worker's perspective, having to install monitoring software on your computer or phone can feel like a red flag and an unforgivable breach of privacy. The question is: Do the pros of workplace monitoring outweigh the cons? As a global IT recruitment agency that's often the middleman between workplaces and employees in tech, we're here to get to the bottom of the topic.

What is workplace and productivity monitoring?

Some call it remote productivity monitoring, others – employee monitoring, and even bossware. Whichever term you prefer, productivity monitoring is used in workplaces to capture and analyze daily activities so that employers can identify patterns, barriers, and possible improvements in the way workers complete their work.

There is a plethora of productivity software and time-tracking tools to choose from depending on whether you're a freelancer, a small business owner, or run a large company. You might have heard some of these names – Hubstaff, Time Doctor, Desktime, Qbserve, Workpuls, and many more.

Fun fact: Did you know the oldest record of time-tracking dates back to 1772 BC and The Code of Hammurabi with the first reference of wages? But we're not here to delve into the past, we want to explore the trends of the future. Currently, surveillance is booming. With employee software sales on the rise, the industry is expected to grow from an annual sales rate of $488 million to $1.7 billion by 2029. Not to mention that COVID-19 helped boost the usage of employee monitoring tools. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of employers using data surveillance software to monitor employees has doubled. Nearly two-thirds of medium to big companies in the United States use employee and productivity monitoring tools, tracking things like email, web browsing, workers’ location, movement, and even eye movement or when the screens go dark. Privacy experts and researchers have gone as far as to predict that employee monitoring could take on a more personalized and possibly more invasive dimension in the future.

For some, this may sound like stuff straight out of Orwell's 1984. So why would companies use workplace monitoring to endanger the delicate thing that is the employer-employee relationship?

The pros: Increased productivity and protection

Man at the laptop looking at his wrist watch
Source: Dylan Ferreira (via Unsplash)

The short answer is: In many cases, employer and productivity tracking actually works. A study by Digital showed that 81% of companies that implemented monitoring software saw an increase in worker productivity. Companies also have to take employer protection in mind. They need to know what's happening at their organization, especially when for many employers, the workplace has changed location and now is based directly in their homes away from the rest of the team and management. The employer needs to have a good grasp of their workers to ensure the company's money is well spent.

There are other advantages depending on what your company wants to achieve with monitoring. Apart from identifying unproductive habits, employee monitoring tools can also help your organization:

  • Empower employees to improve time management

  • Track billable hours and plan the budget

  • Monitor attendance

  • Identify your top performers.

And here's a big one – cyber security. The FBI saw a 300% increase in reported cybercrime attacks since Covid-19. The number one cause has been identified as working from home more often where the environment is very insecure. This is a profound reason why employees, especially those working remotely, would have to be monitored.

The cons: Damaging employee relationships and distraction

Graffiti depicting monitoring video camera
Source: Tobias Tullius (via Unsplash)

Unfortunately, monitoring employees can backfire in many ways if not done thoughtfully. The idea that the employer might be looking at every step the employee takes, especially without their consent, can alienate workers, strip them of their autonomy, promote micromanagement, and destroy an otherwise inspiring team culture.

Balancing private life with work is another issue at hand. Employee and productivity monitoring, especially for remote IT workers, can blur boundaries between work-at-home and home life, damaging employee mental health as a result. And there's another psychological phenomenon – a recent study showed that monitored employees were substantially more likely to break the rules, take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, and purposefully work at a slow pace. Subconsciously, these employees felt that they are less responsible for their own conduct, thus making them more likely to act immorally.

Working in tech recruitment, we know that employee monitoring can be a red flag for future candidates, too. An SDET manager in a large IT company who preferred to remain anonymous confirmed this: “I wouldn't consider working in a company that monitors its employees. It doesn't say anything positive about the work culture and shows a lack of trust in the team. Productivity can have its ups and downs depending on the day you're having. Sometimes, there's a family emergency, and of course, dealing with something else that is not work will show up on your time tracker.” At the same time, he agrees that in some cases, like when hiring outside help, time tracking could be beneficial: “It's different when you're an outsourced partner and need to track how many hours you're working on a specific project for your client.”

The verdict is in: Be transparent and do it for the right reasons

There are several advantages to workplace and productivity monitoring, especially if your employees are remote workers. To get monitoring right, remember that:

  • Communication is paramount. The company should be transparent with employees and new candidates from the get-go that monitoring software will be used. Both sides must know why monitoring is taking place and what is expected of them.

  • Allow your team to voice their concerns. Answer their questions and send out an anonymous survey and address team concerns in a meeting to make your employees feel heard.

  • Agree on the basics and set boundaries. Make it clear what the time tracking system will and will not be used for. Never monitor what's not been discussed, track employees after work hours, and don't take screenshots if that's not been agreed upon.

Tatiana Suslova, a technical recruiter at SaltPay, sums up her experience with workplace monitoring and its pros and cons precisely. “We used DeskTime for time tracking and understanding the productivity habits in the company where I worked before. My main takeaway is that time-tracking tools are great for unpredictable situations like when the pandemic hits and the team need to adjust to new circumstances, like working from home. In addition, monitoring software can enhance the productivity of employees who are driven by competition.”

But this can also be a disadvantage, she adds. “Every company is different, especially in IT, so you have to answer the question: What are the reasons for using productivity software? We've heard directly from candidates that productivity trackers can cause enormous stress. Employee monitoring software makes them feel as if the employer doesn't trust their team. For example, the already hard workers could feel more pressure to spend even more time working, leading to burnout.” To avoid burnout, SaltPay offers flexible schedules which not only improve employee productivity and engagement but improve diversity as employees with different workstyles and lifestyles can join the team.

What's the solution then? “We suggest investing in the human factor instead. If the manager is a good leader and a good person who can build trust and connection with the team, you won't need any trackers to enhance productivity,” Tatiana explains. And data confirms this – Microsoft recently surveyed 20 000 people in 11 countries. The results revealed that people are working harder than ever. “There's no need to lose confidence in employees even if they're working remotely. 87% of employees actually reported being very productive with a colossal productivity increase in meetings and multitasking. So instead of worrying, managers have to eliminate the activities that don't add any value and focus on creating positive energy within the team.”

And one final piece of advice from the Mate HR tech recruitment agency. Workers who are appropriately managed and respected will feel valued in the workplace. As a result, they'll be naturally more motivated, engaged, and productive. Monitoring your employees just to know if they're working on a project or publishing a rather funny tweet instead will do no good to anybody. So instead of using technology solely to assess your employees, think of ways your company can monitor them with thoughtfulness and intent. It will be a win-win for both sides and you'll be surprised that generally, people are motivated to do the right thing.


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