The abrupt transition to remote work has some leaders looking to surveillance tools to monitor their employees. If you think this is a good idea, you’re probably wrong.
I’ve long found the topic of whether human beings are by nature fundamentally good or fundamentally evil an interesting cocktail party conversation. A microcosm of this enduring debate is whether managers who can no longer “shoulder surf” their teams in the relatively controlled environment of company office buildings assume they are diligently and productively working away from home, or shirking all responsibility and binge watching The Real Housewives of Paducaville while eating bonbons on the company dime. This is more than just an existential debate, since managers are tasked with running productive teams, and any perceived lack of performance could adversely affect their position and pay.
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Technology companies, as they are wont to do with difficult human and behavioral problems, have rushed to the fore with software “solutions” that promise to avoid difficult conversations between manager and team member through digital surveillance. While some degree of employee monitoring is acceptable to protect company assets and information, the latest generation of employee spying technology, innocuously dubbed “productivity management” or similar, does everything from grabbing regular screenshots of employee desktops to requiring regular webcam snapshots to foster “collaboration.” Several tools even offer online demos of their management dashboards, where you can view every keystroke and mouse movement, and watch time-lapse “movies” of the activity on their desktop.
Proponents of these tools suggest that the tools supplement good management practices and should be used responsibly, but recording every jiggle of the mouse and tap on the keyboard sends a clear and deeply damaging message to employees: We don’t trust you one bit. Detailed monitoring also assumes that employees are only productive when sitting in front of their terminal, diligently banging away on a spreadsheet or knocking out an email. For most knowledge workers, this is rarely the case. Whether you’re a programmer or CIO, a walk around the block might do more for ultimately advancing your work than trolling through your inbox shuffling mail around.
Shift the focus to outcomes, not inputs
Even for workers who perform a routine task, you should monitor their job performance based on their output rather than how many times they checked eBay or watched a cat video on YouTube. You as a manager are responsible for allocating work and managing the components of a larger set of tasks. If your team members produce the expected outcome in the allotted timeframes, why should you care whether they do so at 3 a.m. in their bunny slippers, or in 45 minute spurts at random times rather than remaining in front of their terminal from nine to five?
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If you’re concerned that an employee is underutilized, or completing their workload too easily, start with the focus on your management capabilities rather than begin by assuming the employee is up to no good. Have you effectively assessed that person’s abilities? Have you overstaffed the team or improperly estimated the effort required to complete the jobs you’re expected to manage? After tweaking your management style, try the novel approach of actually having a conversation with that person. Perhaps they’re dying for more complex work and time to shine, or perhaps they diligently and expertly perform the tasks you’ve asked them to perform in a manner that works for them, and then allocate their remaining time elsewhere.
If you shift your focus to requesting outcomes that have specific and well-defined deadlines, and allow your team members to manage to those objectives, you’ll not only empower them to manage their own workload in the manner that works best for them, but you’ll also create a sense of trust. Furthermore, imagine all the time you’ll have to optimize your management abilities that would have been otherwise spent watching every click, drag, and pause in activity that ultimately does little to improve the performance of your team.
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Of course, this requires significant self-awareness as a manager or leader, and some deep introspection on what you expect from your team, how you allocate and monitor outcomes, and communicate deadlines. In short, it requires that you act like a manager of people, rather than a backroom informant who waits for an opportunity to tattle on anyone who doesn’t meet a singular, narrow, and obsolete definition of “work.”