Leading with Trust

6 Principles to Consider Before Electronically Monitoring Remote Employees

Let’s be honest. Many leaders are suspicious of remote employees’ work habits.

“I know remote employees aren’t working eight hours a day,” said a leader when I recently asked him how his organization was dealing with remote/hybrid workers. He didn’t have any specific data to support his conclusion, but it was clearly his perception that people working remotely weren’t putting in the same effort as those in the office.

Keeping an eye on workers

This leader’s perception is not an outlier, as Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend survey showed that 85% of leaders doubt their remote workers are being productive. “Productivity Paranoia” has taken hold in a large number of organizations as leaders struggle to adjust to new ways of managing remote workers. In June 2022, Gartner’s research showed the number of large employers using tools to track their workers had doubled since the beginning of the pandemic to 60%, with that number expected to rise to 70% within the next three years.

Monitoring employees in some form or fashion has occurred for decades—think GPS trackers in trucks, timecards, swipe badges, CCTV, regulating web browsing—but some of today’s methods border on outright distrust of remote workers. Organizations are surveilling employees by using software to record keystrokes, monitor time spent in specific applications, take periodic screenshots, record meetings, and even accessing employees’ webcams, with some requiring “always on” live video feeds for remote workers.

Effects of electronic monitoring

Is there a good or “right” way to monitor remote employees? Research indicates it’s a risky proposition that often backfires on organizations. One study found that workers under surveillance intentionally worked more slowly, took more breaks, and stole more office supplies than their un-monitored peers. A meta-analysis (a study of multiple studies) examining the effects of electronic monitoring on employee wellness and performance found that monitoring workers had no impact on improving performance and resulted in lower job satisfaction and higher stress.

The reason for these negative impacts? Monitoring an employee’s every move directly opposes the basic psychological need for autonomy. Workers who are monitored feel they have less choice and control, so they circumvent company rules to regain a sense of autonomy over their actions and work environment.

Trust vs Control

If the consequences of monitoring remote employees are so obviously bad, why do organizations do it?

As I share in my recent book with Ken Blanchard, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, the very nature of trust requires one party to take a risk and extend trust to another. Extending our trust to someone makes us vulnerable to their actions. Will they reward our trust? Will we get burned? If we feel the risk is too great, we resort to control. Control is the opposite of trust.

Granted, the nature of some industries requires an appropriate level of monitoring. Certain governmental, military, healthcare, or financial services organizations work with confidential or highly sensitive data, and this requires them to tightly control and monitor employee activity. Monitoring remote employees in these environments makes sense, and it presents leaders with the extra challenge of figuring out ways to meet legal/regulatory requirements while minimizing the negative impact on the employee experience.

Apart from these situations, it seems most organizations who electronically monitor remote employees do it because they simply don’t trust workers to be productive (although they would never state that publicly).

Six Important Principles

The decision to electronically monitor remote employees is not one to be taken lightly or made quickly. If you’re considering going this route, I recommend you consider these six important principles.

1. Examine Your Motives—Be brutally honest with yourself. Why do you feel the need to monitor your remote workers? Is it truly a concern over their productivity? If so, what data do you have that shows it’s suffering? Is the quality of work not up to snuff? Again, what data supports your conclusions? Or is the root issue a lack of trust? It’s OK to admit there are trust issues. You can’t improve trust until you first acknowledge there is a problem.

2. Look for Ways to Address Concerns That Don’t Involve Monitoring—If there are legitimate concerns that need to be addressed, explore ways to resolve those concerns that don’t involve electronic monitoring or surveillance (e.g., completing status reports, daily scrums, etc.). It may require more time and effort to create and implement new systems or processes, but the effort will result in higher trust and respect with your team members than if you take the quick and easy route of digitally tracking their every move.

“People who plan the battle rarely battle the plan.” ~ Simple Truth #22
Simple Truths of Leadership, by Ken Blanchard & Randy Conley

3. Involve Employees in Creating the Strategy—If you find some sort of monitoring of remote employees is needed, digital or otherwise, involve the people who will be impacted in developing the strategy. People will have greater ownership and commitment to the strategy if they understand the purpose of it and help create and implement it. If it’s done to them, rather than with them, they will push-back and act in self-protective ways that are usually counter to what the organization desires.

4. Be Clear on What’s Being Measured and Why—Simple, rote tasks that have easily measurable metrics around quantity and quality are easiest to monitor, but complex, knowledge-based tasks requiring discretion and judgement are much harder to measure. How do you quantify innovation and collaboration? The difficulty of measuring these factors is why many organizations have defaulted to demanding remote workers return to the office.

5. Make it a Win-Win—The organization clearly benefits from keeping tabs on remote workers, but what about the employees? Creating a win-win is a key success factor of any employee monitoring system, say researchers who study this topic. From the employee perspective, will it result in more manageable workloads? Training opportunities? Higher compensation? It will look different for every organization and job role, but it’s critical that employees see the benefit.

6. Play Fair—Fairness is treating people equitably (being impartial, unbiased, giving them what they deserve) and ethically (according to the principles, standards, or rules). If monitoring remote employees is necessary, then be completely above-board and transparent about why it’s required, how it’s being done, what the data will be used for, and how it will impact employees.

Is It Worth It?

When deciding to monitor remote employees, each organization must answer this question: Is it worth it? From my perspective, the drawbacks far outweigh any potential benefits. I believe organizations have much more to gain by collaborating with employees to define this new world of remote work.

The pandemic let the genie out of the bottle and proved that remote work can deliver business results just as effectively, if not more so, than in-person work. With survey after survey showing most people wanting some form of remote work, organizations are going to have to address this issue head on. The ones who will be the most successful are those who build their approach on a foundation of trust with their employees rather than suspicion.

Let’s Not Kid Ourselves – The Debate Over Hybrid Work Comes Down to Trust

In my line of work, I get the opportunity to interact with leaders from a wide variety of organizations from a diverse range industries, including government and non-profits. A common factor that most are dealing with right now is adjusting to the new world of hybrid work.

Hybrid work means team members work from both the office and remotely. Some organizations employ a formal schedule that requires employees to be in the office certain days of the week, while others leave it to the discretion of the team member to be in the office as needed, usually for key meetings or events. Many organizations are trying to find the model that works best for their specific needs and goals.

The Great Trust Experiment

Although working virtually has been “a thing” for many years, the pandemic forced it upon organizations at a scale that couldn’t have been imagined just a few years ago. Literally overnight, organizations were forced to adopt a new model of working if they wanted to survive. Employers had to extend massive amount of trust to their employees in what I have called “The Great Trust Experiment.” By most accounts, the shift has been a success, with organizations experiencing increased growth and productivity, and employees reporting higher levels of well-being and satisfaction.

But old habits die hard. Many organizations are either calling their employees back to the office full-time or requiring them to be in the office certain days of the week.

Why? Well, most companies are saying that employees’ physical presence in the office is required to foster a healthy organizational culture, or that in-person interaction is required for innovative and creative work to take place.

Are those important factors? Absolutely. Is being in the office a prerequisite for those things to flourish? No.

So, I’m calling B.S.

The Opposite of Trust is not Distrust—it’s Control

I think the root factor driving most of these decisions is control.

As Ken Blanchard and I point out in our new book, Simple Truths of Leadership: 52 Ways to Be a Servant Leader and Build Trust, distrust is not the opposite of trust. The opposite of trust is control.

We are in the early days of a transformation of how work is being defined in the 21st century. No longer is work a place you go to, but rather something you do. Since the very nature of work is being redefined, it’s also redefining the nature of leadership.

Since the industrial revolution, leadership has been governed by a command-and-control approach, where leaders were designated to make decisions (issue commands) and dictate (control) how the work is done. Employees have long been “human resources” that are merely a means to an end.

The digital age has rendered command-and-control leadership obsolete. For many occupations, work can be accomplished from literally anywhere, yet our mindset and approach to leadership is struggling to adapt to this new reality.

No Going Back to The “Old Days”

The genie is out of the bottle regarding remote work and there’s no putting it back in. The pandemic has caused people to re-evaluate their relationship with work and they’ve learned there’s a better way. And unlike any time in the past, employees have the lion’s share of power to make decisions about where and how they want to work.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not advocating against the value and necessity of in-person work. Nothing yet invented can replace human-to-human interaction, and I doubt it ever will (although, I wouldn’t be surprised to see future technological innovation that closely mimics in-person interaction). I think in-person gatherings are critically important for team formation, bonding, and cultural development.

But I think it’s lazy leadership to blanketly mandate employees be in the office because “that’s what the office is for,” or “that’s how we did it before the pandemic.” I just had a conversation with a client this week who expressed her organization’s employees are struggling with being required to be in the office yet spend the entire day alone participating in virtual meetings.

A New Model of Leadership is Needed

We need more honest and introspective discussion about how organizations must shift in the years ahead if they want to attract and retain the best talent. We must adopt new mindsets about what leadership looks like and how our organizations operate in the future, rather than being stuck in our current mindsets of believing innovation/culture/teamwork/etc., can only happen when we’re together in person.

I think the future of work will look differently for each organization and employee. I think it will be a mosaic of options that take into account the unique needs of all the parties involved, but in order for that to happen, there has to be trust. Organizations need to let go of control and adopt a service-minded approach to leading.

Trusted servant leaders look to bring out the best in their team members. They put the needs of their followers ahead of their own. When team members believe their leader (and by extension, their organization) has their best interests at heart and is there to support them in achieving their goals, trust grows by leaps and bounds.

There are many questions we need to answer as we seek to define what work looks like in the hybrid world. I don’t have all the answers, and in fact, probably only have one: trusted servant leaders will be key to unleashing the potential and power of people and organizations in the years ahead.

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