For years, the demands of work-life balance coupled with improving technology has allowed telecommuting to grow in popularity. And to whatever extent employers were uncomfortable with allowing employees to work remotely before March 2020, the COVID-19 global pandemic all but forced their hand. Workers across industries quickly transitioned to remote work—seemingly overnight. But how can you know if they’re actually working? It’s a valid question, says Michelle Thompson, vice president of human resources at XMI, but there’s a right way and a wrong way to answer it.

The rise of employee surveillance

Even before the global pandemic forced employees home, employee surveillance was on the rise. A 2018 survey by Gartner found that 22% of organizations worldwide use employee-movement data, 17% monitor work-computer-usage data, and 16% monitor usage data from Microsoft Outlook or shared calendars.

What’s more, there’s a range of tools available for employers interested in employee surveillance according to this Harvard Business Review article: “Multiple services enable stealth monitoring, live video feeds, keyboard tracking, optical character recognition, keystroke recording, or location tracking.”

It goes on to mention a couple of services by name, which offer random screen capture every couple of minutes or a comprehensive log of all keyboard activity. But, if this sounds a little overkill for keeping tabs on productivity, you’re not alone.

“If employees are being tracked at that level, it implies a culture of no trust,” she says. “Unless you have a legitimate business reason to track detailed employee work time (tracking time for client-related billing, for example), it’s going to have a tremendous impact on culture.”

5 tips for keeping remote workers on track

Set expectations: Like with many facets of work, keeping employees productive at home starts with setting clear expectations. As a first step, Thompson recommends creating or updating your remote work policy. While employers can’t go so far as to force employees to carve out the perfect work-from-home spot, a policy can include guidelines about how to make their remote work situation conducive to working—a quiet room, dedicated space, etc. Also make sure this policy outlines where and when remote work can take place. Anything that falls outside of these parameters should require approval from a manager or supervisor. “If you’re the passenger in a car on a road trip with your family, that probably shouldn’t be considered a workday,” she says.

Ramp up check-ins: With fewer opportunities for face-to-face interactions, your company might consider ramping up virtual check-ins. From morning team meetings to regular afternoon calls with the supervisor, these can help keep employees engaged and give additional opportunities for employers to gauge productivity. Thompson also encourages companies to utilize video conferencing for these meetings—and requiring employees to have their cameras on, as a matter of policy.

“It’s a way to track without actually tracking,” she says. “When cameras are on, you can see that employees are engaged.”

Tell the truth: Whatever monitoring programs you put in place, make sure employees know about them. “Being transparent here is key,” Thompson says. “But take care in how you share the information.” For example, if a new “cameras-on” policy is in response to a specific incident, leave those details out.

Apply the rules equally: “It’s true that some employees will have a harder time with maintaining productivity as they continue to work from home more than others,” Thompson says. But to avoid singling anyone out, especially in this unprecedented time, it’s best to apply any policies to the whole team.

Meet employees where they are: While policies shouldn’t be applied unevenly, it is absolutely OK to provide individualized support to employees who are struggling, Thompson says.

“If you’re sensing someone is struggling or is feeling isolated and maybe they’re not being as productive, have an open and honest conversation to help determine what they need,” she says. “Don’t approach their lack of productivity as wanting to slack off.  Caring and compassion go a long way in keeping employees engaged.”

Instead, be proactive and reach out to staff that could be having some performance issues.

“It may be that a full-time employee suddenly finds themselves only able to work six hours a day right now, due to family obligations,” she says. One solution could be applying for intermittent FMLA leave, which was included in the CARES Act.

Whereas approaching remote work-related challenges with an iron fist (or a watchful eye) erodes trust, responding from a place of support and concern builds trust and loyalty, Thompson says. “Now is not the time to be rigid in response to those types of challenges.”

Need help motivating your remote workforce to stay on track? Let XMI help you gain peace of mind about at-home productivity while keeping trust intact. Learn more about our human resources outsourcing and professional employer organization (PEO) services.


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