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More productivity, less monitoring: How to improve remote productivity without resorting to surveillance

(Image credit: Image Credit: Thefarmsoho.com)

It’s hardly a revelation anymore but it bears repeating: remote work is here to stay. So, welcome to the Next Normal. A place where your home office is now your office home.

CEOs, managers, directors - employees at pretty much all levels - have varying views on how the Next Normal will look and feel. In the minds of some managers, the Next Normal is a frightening place, filled with many distractions. One where their teams sleep in, indulge their online shopping habit, take coffee breaks, work on their tan— basically anything other than actually working.

To calm their collective nerves some companies have taken the drastic step of installing employee-monitoring software. These tools check staff activity at a never-before-seen level by monitoring web browsing, recording the amount of time spent on an application, tracking internet activity, counting keystrokes and tracking physical location using GPS. Some even access your webcam and snap time-lapse pictures to prove you’re at your desk. 

A recent Wall Street Journal article on employee monitoring through surveillance reported that makers of workplace-monitoring products have logged an increase in orders since the coronavirus began in late February/early March. One such company, ActivTrak, says 1,000+ new companies have signed up since just April. And this is a movement that is not set to slow down anytime soon with Gartner Research finding that 57 percent of businesses are planning on tracking things such as internal texts, staff movement, and biometric readings in the future. 

If that sounds invasive, it’s because it is.

Yet, business owners and employers have the right to know whether or not the people they’re paying to do their job are actually doing it. Companies aren’t paying their staff to binge-watch their favorite programs. Employers expect their teams to maintain, or exceed, productivity levels while working remotely.

The belief that surveilling employees will keep them honest is where the disconnect happens. A system of heavy tracking and surveillance can often lead to the very thing it is designed to prevent. Employees feel less trusted, less creative and less loyal to the business. The pressure to deliver often leads to teams feeling like they are pitted against each other. This is extremely bad for morale and, in the worst cases, can totally destroy company culture. 

Tracking employee productivity doesn't have to be intrusive

There are three ways a company can maintain productivity without having to pry. The first step is to provide employees with everything they need to be productive.

This seems obvious but, nearly half (41.2 percent) of the UK respondents to our recent Remote Work Index study said they still don’t have all the infrastructure, data, and platforms they need to be productive from home. This includes such basics as broadband internet, the proper hardware, VPN access, in some instances even a place to sit.

To keep productivity at the levels achieved in-office or to improve beyond those levels, you need to equip your employees with the right tools. To do this requires a slight intellectual leap and to think of the home space in the same way you think of the office space. Most organizations think nothing of providing their staff with big-screen monitors, purchasing noise-cancelling headphones, equipping meeting rooms with the latest virtual meeting hardware, or items as simple as whiteboards for brainstorming. These purchases in the office environment are simply the cost of doing business, and within reason, the same is true for your remote teams. No matter how closely you watch your teams, if they lack the tools they need to do their work, productivity will dip. 

Along with the right tools, teams need to be on the same processes and systems in place to get their work done. In the same Remote Work Index study, 46.9 percent of workers said they’re fully aware of the processes they need to follow in order to get their work done. In comparison, 38.3 percent said that their companies offer multiple processes and systems, but many are redundant while others are incompatible. The remaining respondents reported that they were allowed to use whatever platform they found convenient, and that their company platforms and processes have no consistency, resulting in sagging productivity.

Again, all of this seems obvious, but employees need an easy, fast way to make requests to other teams and manage those requests without losing track of them. Employees must be able to review assets and provide feedback. Get quick approvals from stakeholders. Plan projects with fellow team members. Have visibility into status of projects and tasks and easily update project status.

As an exec or even team manager you need to know the status of projects and workloads of employees. You can do that with a Collaborative Work Management (CWM) platform. You can get a visual view of your team's bandwidth, capacity, and the status of your projects. No need to peer over anyone’s shoulder to make sure they’re doing their job.

Unless you provide the tools necessary to perform these simple work-related actions online, your employees cannot be productive. 

Which brings us to the third essential.  If your team has the equipment they need and adheres to process, you still need remote employees aligned to company goals. To accomplish this level of alignment all employees need to implement Objectives and Key Results (OKRs).

Transparency is the key

When OKRs, starting from the CEO down to the individual contributors, are strategized, planned, and logged in your CWM, the whole company has visibility into the state of their work, the dependencies, blockers, timelines, status and results, meaning the need for surveillance disappears.

So, business can achieve transparency among remote teams by creating direct communication channels between employees and management. This will enable workers to self-report on progress, issues, and roadblocks and work can be measured on impact instead of worker activity. Ultimately, this will help to establish a culture of ownership amongst employees rather than one of distrust

This is a long-term sustainable strategy to build a highly productive and engaged workforce that consistently delivers results.

David McGeough, Director of International Marketing, Wrike