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Why managers should collaborate with employees and resist the temptation to spy

Roly Walter
18th November 2020

"I know myself you can take an extra 10-minute break here or there. It's good to have an automatic way of monitoring what my employees are up to.” This is a quote from Shibu Philip, founder of a small beauty product seller, who featured in a recent story on BBC News. He uses software that takes screenshots of his employees’ activities. They are based in India and he believes this is an effective way to manage their performance.

With thousands of managers now in a similar position, of being in charge of employees working remotely, he is certainly not alone in his desire to be able to see what his workers are up. Many will sympathise with his tactics, uncertain how to keep tabs on employees working from home. Sales of the software used by Philip and similar products have rocketed since the first lockdown began as managers are keen to prevent employees from slacking off. But is this right thing to do?

My answer is a loud, resounding NO. Apart from the morale and ethical can of worms it opens, I just don’t believe this can be effective for a number of reasons:

  • It creates a culture of fear – employees become paranoid about their every move being watched, creating resentment and eroding trust.
  • It is of very little value – a screenshot provides a very two-dimensional view, just showing that the employee is looking at work applications, it doesn’t show you what they are doing.
  • It encourages mediocrity – employees complete tasks as quickly as possible, rather than taking the time and effort to do them to the best of their abilities.
  • It creates a “them and us” attitude – rather than working together in partnership, it sets up employers as authoritarian figures with their employees reduced to little more than minions.
  • It stifles creativity – it discourages employees from getting inspiration from other sources, forcing them to rigidly follow the status quo and not come forward with ideas.
  • It encourages unhealthy working practices – it is impossible to concentrate solidly for hours on end, experts recommend employees take regular breaks throughout the working day to recharge and regain focus.

Another huge reason to shy away from this kind of practice is that employees absolutely hate the idea. A recent report revealed that well over 90% of employees say having an employer that trusts them is important for their overall happiness and 83% say autonomy is essential. Some employees are also resorting to installing software to counter this snooping, which ensures their keyboard and mouse stay active when they step away from their desks.

The responses posted on Twitter to the BBC article back up these findings and show how abhorrent employees find the idea of being spied on:

These are just a small selection of the hundreds of responses. The sentiment from employees is overwhelmingly hostile, with many comments unrepeatable in polite society.

So, if the practice is so unpopular, why does it persist? What is it that makes managers behave in this way?

  • Insecurity – many managers move into their roles without any training in how to manage people. They are promoted because they are good at their job, not because they know how to get the best out of others. The Chartered Institute of Managers estimates that up to four out of five bosses in the UK are accidental managers; those that have fallen into the role without any management training. They feel out of their depth and are floundering in the current climate.
  • Seeing is believing – it is human nature to want to see things with our own eyes in order to accept they are true. With employees working remotely, some managers lack the confidence or trust in them to do their job while not being watched.
  • It seems the easy option – rather than spending time with employees to ensure they have a clear idea of what tasks they need to complete and by when, spying on their screens seems like a shortcut for managers.
  • Managers don’t know their employees – if you don’t know what makes a person tick, what motivates them and how they like to work, it is very difficult to manage them. Our research last year highlighted that 20% of employees have 1-2-1s with their managers less than every six months. In these cases, the understanding and communication between employees and managers is simply not there. It is impossible to establish a strong and healthy working relationship without regular conversations.
  • Looking at the wrong metrics – managers may be under pressure to demonstrate that their employees are working effectively from home. By providing data on how long they are spending on work tasks at first sight seems a useful figure to have, but if you take a moment to think about it, it is a pretty meaningless piece of data. Being online is not the same as being productive. They don’t show how effective an employee is being, how well they are performing or if they are meeting their targets.

So, if spying on your employees is the wrong way to go about this, what is the alternative? What can managers to do ensure employees are being as productive as possible while working remotely? How can they ensure employees stay motivated and focused with so many uncertainties circulated about what the future might hold?

Of course, there is no simple answer to this. If I had the solution, I would be a much richer man. We have all worked with colleagues who don’t exactly put in 100% effort. Those that do the bare minimum, seem to be sick more than most and always, always leave on time.

However, I don’t believe anyone comes to work wanting to do a bad job. The vast majority of employees take pride in their work, want to feel they are making a difference and doing something worthwhile. This will be the case if they are working in an office or working at home.

If employees are under performing, there is usually a reason for this behaviour. They may be bored in their role, feel undervalued, believe they have been passed over for promotion or find themselves in a role that doesn’t suit their skills. Also especially now, there could be huge issues happening in their personal life that they are struggling to deal with. These are obstacles that can all be overcome with the right management and a little bit of care and attention.

💡 Talk, talk and talk some more – there is no substitute for building a relationship with your employees. The better you know them as people, understand their lives, their ambitions and motivations, the more you can help them to be productive employees. Just asking the simple question “How are you doing?” can tell you so much about what they are working on, how they are feeling and if they need help.

💡 Set clear expectations and objectives – usual office life provides a framework for employees to exist in – they know when the day starts and finishes and can see through the example of others what is expected from them. When working remotely this is lost, so it’s vital to provide employees with an alternative framework. Let them know what tasks you expect them to do and by when.

💡 Embrace flexibility – being productive isn’t about sitting at a desk for eight hours a day. It’s about being focused on getting a task done. Everyone works in different ways and this is currently especially true, as people juggle family life and outside pressures. Give employees the license to work in a way that suits them alongside the expectation that they need to deliver on agreed objectives. They will appreciate the trust placed in them and the vast majority of people will respond in a positive way.

💡 Review, review and review some more – this way of working is new for virtually everyone. You probably won’t get it right first time. Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes and adjust practices that aren’t working. Encourage employees to feedback on how things are going, suggest adjustments and new ideas for making things better. Creating an environment where everyone feels their voice matters, builds energy, enthusiasm and produces more productive employees.

We are in the middle of one, big working from home experiment. While there are clear benefits that employees love, such as increased flexibility, no arduous commute and a better work/life balance, there are also obvious downsides. These include a lack of social interaction, feelings of isolation and a detachment from colleagues and the potential for burnout. It will be a huge challenge for employers to keep employees happy, healthy and motivated over the coming months, but I believe these challenges are best met in partnership with employees, working together to find the best way forward that works for everyone. In my view, spying on employees, managing through fear, and expecting the worst can only lead to a dark place. I prefer to take a more positive point of view.