Even before Covid-19 sent an unprecedented number of people to work from home, employers were ramping up their efforts to monitor employee productivity. A 2018 Gartner report revealed that of 239 large corporations, 50% were monitoring the content of employee emails and social media accounts, along with who they met with and how they utilised their workspaces. A year later, an Accenture survey of C-suite executives reported that 62% of their organisations were leveraging new tools to collect data on their employees.
These statistics were gathered before the coronavirus pandemic, which has made working from home a necessity for thousands of companies. With that transition having happened so rapidly, employers are left wondering how much work is actually going on. The fear of productivity losses, mingling with the horror of massively declining revenues, has encouraged many leaders to ramp up their employee monitoring efforts. Tempting as it may be to implement monitoring in the service of protecting productivity, it also stands in stark contrast to recent trends in the corporate world.
Many organisations have committed to fostering a better employee experience, with a particular focus on diversity and inclusion. There are not only strong ethical reasons for having one’s eye on that ball, but good bottom line reasons as well. The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey from 2019 found that 55% of millennials plan to leave employers that prioritise profits over people. Retention – which should be a priority for all companies, given the high expense of making and onboarding new hires – becomes difficult and costly for companies that don’t reflect those values.
Even so, some companies will still find it worth the tradeoffs. Justified fear of a collapsing economy reasonably drives employers to monitor their employees to ensure they are being productive and efficient. Indeed, they may even have ethically admirable aims in doing so, such as for the sake of their employees’ health and the health of the country as a whole. Furthermore, if the tools are deployed with the goal of discovering which employees are in need of additional help (more on this below), that may be all the more reason to monitor.
But if your business concludes that it ought to monitor employees (for whatever reason), it is important to do so in a way that maximally respects its employees. Here are six recommendations on how to walk this tightrope.
- Choose your metrics carefully by involving all relevant stakeholders.
Applying numbers to things is easy, as is making quick judgments based on numeric scores spit out by a piece of software. This leads to both unnecessary surveillance and ill-formed decisions. It’s simply too easy to react to information that, in practice, is irrelevant to productivity, efficiency and revenue. If you insist on monitoring employees, make sure what you’re tracking is relevant and necessary. Simply monitoring the quantity of emails written or read, for instance, is not a reliable indicator of productivity.
If you want the right metrics, then engage all of the relevant stakeholders in the process to determine those metrics, from hiring managers and supervisors to those who are actually being monitored. With regards to employee engagement, it is especially important to reach both experienced and new employees, and that they are able to deliver their input in a setting where there is no fear of reprisal. For instance, employees can provide their input via a discussion with a supervisor – but preferably not their direct supervisor, who has the authority to fire or promote them.
- Be transparent.
Part and parcel of respecting someone is that you take the time to openly and honestly communicate with them. Tell your employees what you’re monitoring and why. Give them the opportunity to offer feedback. Share the results of the monitoring with them, and crucially, provide a system by which they can appeal decisions about their career that have been influenced by the data collected. Transparency increases employee acceptance rates. Gartner found that only 30% of employees were comfortable with their employer monitoring their email. But in the same study, when an employer shared that they would be monitoring and explained why, more than 50% of workers reported being comfortable with it.
- Offer carrots as well as sticks.
Monitoring or surveillance software is implicitly tied to overseers who are bent on compliance and submission. But you don’t need to pursue monitoring as a method of oppression. You would do better to think about it as a tool by which you can figure out how to help your employees be more productive or reward them for their hustle. That means thinking about what kinds of carrots can be used to motivate and boost relevant numbers, not just sticks to discourage inefficiencies.
- Accept that very good workers will not always be able to do very good work all the time – especially under present circumstances.
These are unique times and it would be wrong – both ethically and factually – to make decisions about who is and who is not a good employee or a hard worker based on performance under these conditions. Some very hard-working and talented employees may be stretched extraordinarily thin due to a lack of school and child care options, for instance. These are people you want to keep, because in the long run, they provide a tremendous amount of value. Ensure that your supervisors take the time to talk to their supervisees when the numbers aren’t what you want them to be. And again, that conversation should reflect an understanding of the employee’s situation and focus on creative solutions, not threats.
- Monitor your own systems to ensure that people are not disproportionately affected.
If employee monitoring is being used, it is important that the most junior people are not surveilled to a greater extent than their managers, or at least not to an extent that places special burdens on them. For instance, it would be particularly troublesome if very junior employees received a level of surveillance that only slightly more senior people did not. A policy that says, “This is how we monitor all employees” raises fewer ethical red flags.
- Decrease monitoring when and where you can.
The impulse to monitor is understandable, especially in these times. But as people return to their offices – and even as some continue to work from home – look for places to pull back monitoring efforts where things are going well. This communicates trust to employees. It also corrects for the tendency to acquire more control than necessary when circumstances are not as severe as they once were.
At the end of the day, your employees are your most valuable assets. They possess institutional knowledge and skills others do not. You’ve invested time and money in them and they are expensive to replace. Treating them with respect is not only something they deserve – it’s crucial for a company’s retention efforts. You should be monitoring employees not with a raised baton, but with an outstretched hand.
This article was first published in Harvard Business Review. (Edited)