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Overly Eager to Monitor Remote Employees? You’re Doing It Wrong


The cornerstone of any relationship—be it personal or professional—is trust. In the context of a job, there’s no better way to demonstrate that you trust someone than by giving them their preferred space and means to do their work.

Remote workers are often given the latitude to choose their work environment and have the flexibility to move around a bit during the workday. (And many are working from some very unusual spaces!)

That said, the beauty of remote work is in its leaning toward a total meritocracy: professionals do the work, and ought to be rewarded based on output alone. Not on some perceived level of effort, or the ability to socialize at the (now nonexistent) company water cooler, or the time spent in an office chair. Like the industrial clocking in/out system, that mentality is now obsolete.

Or at least, it should be.

While virtual teammates do enjoy a certain amount of autonomy simply by working from a distance, their roles are coming under increasing pressure not only to perform, but to prove that they’re performing via the mandatory installation of remote monitoring tools.

This post isn’t intended to be an affront to those startups that have created products specifically or even partially to serve this purpose. After all, they’re tapping into a market and a ‘pain’ that do, indeed, exist.

This is a message to those who use such tools to monitor their employees’ ‘wasted’ time. Under the guise of productivity and transparency, many organizational decisions are being made that compromise employees’ privacy, and ultimately, their trust.

The pliability of remote work is precisely what has skyrocketed productivity. Many studies point to the fact that those with flexible jobs are not only happier but are motivated to do more. Who cares if they do it in less time, or if they’re cyberloafing on a social media channel for part of their workday?

I have no issue with various platforms and tools that enable teams to collaborate, or that empower individuals to set reminders and create elaborate to-do lists…and even share those publicly. All of that is positive reinforcement. (Yet I do find the concept of reward systems to be too formal and just a tad too Pavlovian for comfort.)

What troubles me is the willingness of organizations to police their team members for the sake of hitting certain goals. This is backward thinking. Some managers actually believe that eliminating distractions or ‘preventing’ them somehow will engender a stronger work ethic or commitment to a shared goal.

Again, research has shown us otherwise many times over. It’s freedom, not money, that boosts morale and personal contributions. When people are given the latitude to work the way they’re most comfortable—and yes, I am suggesting that this means little mental breaks in the form of cat videos every now and again—they’re capable of producing more and are happier while doing it. And while this post isn’t intended to speak for all remote workers, those who delight in being digitally tracked are very possibly in the minority.

Yet everything points to employers’ ceding control being a positive move. ‘Maverick’ CEO and bestselling author Ricardo Semler has taken this to the extreme, leading a company with (almost) no rules. Incorporating flexibility enabled Semler to grow his organization, Semco, from less than $5m in annual revenue to over $400m. (Semco also possesses interests in other businesses worth $9b.)

Profits don’t lie.

Who knows? That last meme someone viewed might inspire an incredible marketing campaign. Or a recent tweet could spark a fresh approach to internal processes. Inspiration and creativity come in many forms, and not all of these would receive a generic productivity stamp of approval.

What are the effects of remote monitoring tools on employee turnover and job satisfaction? Can employees retain a genuine sense of autonomy and agency over their workload and decision making while under virtual surveillance? What the hidden losses that are going untracked in this new monitored environment?

If the remote work community is hearing crickets chirping in response to these critical questions, it’s time to start evaluating.

The bottom line: when it comes to remote employees’ capabilities, seeing is believing…and this doesn’t mean all-seeing. If managers remove the smaller joys and prevent them from successfully managing themselves, they might see an initial or fleeting uptick in productivity…but at what cost?


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