According to published reports, more companies are using spyware to monitor employee activity while working from home.

By definition, this means that bosses are more focused on the employee’s activity, rather than the outcomes they generate. They’re measuring hours worked, calls answered, cases closed, tickets resolved. And now, they’re measuring the amount of time employees are spending on an application, on a phone call, or on a specific task.

Certainly, these are measures of work done.  But do they measure work done well? Do they measure customer satisfaction? Efficient use of time?

More important questions are: Do these measurements encourage the desired behavior from employees? Do they support the company’s objectives?

Punishment or reward?

Let’s imagine a company that claims to provide world-class customer service, provided by a service team responsible for responding to customer queries via phone, email, and chat.  There are a few ways one could use measurement to gauge the team’s effectiveness:

  • Scenario 1 — Measure output, such as the number of calls each rep handles per hour, the amount of time spent on each call, the number of other contacts (e.g. email and chat queries) the rep handles, and the customer cases closed.
  • Scenario 2 — Measure outcomes, such as the response time (i.e. the amount of time it takes for reps to answer the phone or respond to a chat query,) customer satisfaction Net Promoter Scores, and customer retention.

Imagine you’re a newly hired representative on this team, and you’re meeting with your boss to set your goals.

  • Scenario 1 — Your goals include responding to a certain number of customer queries per day.  You’re advised that in order to meet this number, you need to ensure that each customer contact is completed within a certain number of minutes, otherwise, you won’t achieve the daily goal.
  • Scenario 2 — Your goals are presented in the context of a larger team goal, which is to continually reduce the team’s response time, and increase customer satisfaction scores.  Your boss also mentions team rewards if quarterly customer retention numbers are met, and an annual bonus if the company meets its annual customer satisfaction and retention goals.

Both of these sets of measures require employees to respond swiftly to customer queries in order to succeed. However, whereas one team will be focused on the amount of time spent on a query, the other team will be focused on ensuring customer satisfaction.  It comes down to a punitive mindset when it comes to individual goals or a positive one.  Which do you believe would deliver better outcomes?

Nose to the grindstone, or time to think? 

Let’s imagine another scenario, in this case, involving a specialist team, such as a group of product managers, software developers, or marketers, whose daily remit is usually a blend of team projects, individual contributions, administrative tasks, and independent research. The team has been working remotely for four months.

  • Company A has implemented corporate spyware for its employees and advises everyone that activities on their computers are being monitored.
  • Company B does not monitor employee activity.

Let’s imagine both companies have clearly defined goals that are based on outcomes achieved.  What behaviors do their respective systems reward?  Which company would you bet produced better results? Consider what some recent research has found regarding productivity.

More breaks = better productivity

A software startup called the Draugiem Group conducted a study using their time and productivity tracking software, and came to a startling conclusion about productivity: what matters isn’t the length of the workday. Instead, a more important driver of productivity was how individuals structured their days.  Specifically, the workers who routinely took short breaks were far more productive than peers who kept their noses to the grindstone for longer periods of time.

How is this even possible?

Our brains burn a lot of energy, and staying focused requires effort. The study found the ideal split between work and rest was 52 minutes of work, followed by 17 minutes of rest. Those who kept that schedule achieved a much higher degree of focus in their work, staying 100% dedicated to the task at hand.  When they felt fatigued, they took short breaks, separating themselves entirely from work for a short period, before starting another highly productive hour.

Their peers, on the other hand, diluted their focus by multitasking, checking social media, or allowing themselves to be distracted by email.  On paper, they showed greater “inputs” (time spent at their desk) but in reality, they accomplished less.

There’s a biological basis for this. Our brains are wired to work in bursts, followed by short rests. And herein lies a problem with corporate monitoring: if employees feel they have to keep up constant activity, their actual productivity will degrade.

Time spent focused on a task represents “deep work,” which is defined by productivity pioneer Cal Newton as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task.” Developing the ability to do “deep work” without distraction will increase one’s productivity significantly. However, employees who know they’re being monitored are less likely to take the sort of breaks that improve thinking and performance and are less likely to get into “deep work’ mode.

We’ve tried it, and it works 

The Engagement Multiplier team are enthusiastic experimenters, and I’ve encouraged them to think of their workdays in several different ways.

First, I introduced them to the Entrepreneurial Time System pioneered by Dan Sullivan of Strategic Coach ®, comprising Free Days, Focus Days, and Buffer Days.  In a nutshell, Free Days are time off. Focus Days are days dedicated to heads-down work, with 80% of your time spent on the important functions that really matter in your role. Buffer Days are for cleaning up loose ends, resolving issues, routine meetings, administrative details, and, most importantly, preparation so you can be really effective on your focus days, and not get bogged down with too much ‘stuff’. By approaching one’s week in this way, one can align tasks with days, ensuring plenty of time for deep work, whilst protecting the free time that is so important for recharging.

Our team also works in “sprints” during the day, creating focused periods of work interspersed with multiple short, re-energising breaks (taken with my blessing!) throughout the day.  I can personally attest to the productivity gains a team will realise by employing these practices.

Downsides to monitoring

While monitoring can help improve performance, there are downsides to too much monitoring and process optimization. According to an NBC article titled, “Is Constant Corporate Monitoring Killing Morale?” too much monitoring can have the following effects:

  • Forcing employees to work in similar styles, irrespective of factors such as time of day or different individual strengths,
  • Employees feel devalued, like they’re “just a number,’ and ignoring their subjective contributions,
  • Adding stress and continual fear of reprimand or firing due to not meeting numbers.

Done poorly, monitoring can prevent employees from doing their best work, by encouraging them to focus on the behavior that is being monitored, reducing the energy and effort they could be applying to deliver results.  At its worst, in addition to degrading productivity and morale, and increasing employee turnover.

Outcomes, not outputs 

Doubling down on micromanagement and intensively monitoring employees also reinforces distrust between managers and their teams. The subtext of intensive monitoring is this: Management doesn’t trust you to do your jobs.

I firmly believe that now, more than ever, it’s time to trust your team to do the right thing and deliver to their pre-agreed outcomes.  Anything you do that undermines that (such as spyware or micromanagement) is akin to treating them as though they are incorrigibly lazy.

Trust them, celebrate accomplishments and progress, and watch productivity, job satisfaction and happiness rise – it’s an incredible ROI – and cheaper than destructive software!

To succeed in the new normal, in which remote work becomes more the norm than the exception, leaders should be thinking about how to entirely reframe how they define and measure productivity.

To shift their mindsets, leaders should consider:

  • Focusing on achieving business outcomes, versus measuring outputs. For example, instead of measuring the number of whitepapers a marketing team publishes, or the number of features a product team develops, measure the business outcomes those activities were intended to generate, such as sales qualified leads or media mentions in target outlets for the whitepaper, and revenue or adoption rate for the product feature.
  • Embrace productivity skills, and encourage employees to educate themselves on their work styles, deep work, and other skills to help them work better and smarter – not more.
  • Set clear, objective-based goals, track progress, and communicate openly and transparently about those goals — this will keep employees focused on the objective, and give managers confidence in their teams.
  • Assess your leaders’ abilities across the seven dimensions of leadership required to successfully navigate rapid change and the emerging new normal, and take focused action to help them strengthen necessary skills using the free Leadership Perception Gap survey tools from Engagement Multiplier.

Whether or not they can embrace the necessary changes in leadership style and mindset this moment in time demands will determine whether or not a business recovers and finds success in the post-Covid era. To support the business community, I’m putting purpose before profits and am making Engagement Multiplier’s Leadership Perception Gap survey (along with our core Benchmark Assessment) free for leaders who want to ensure their businesses are adjusting to the demands of the day and are on track for success.