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Does Surveillance Increase Remote Employee Productivity?

Virtual Team Training

Employee surveillance is on the rise, as the BBC reported. The article noted, that “More than half of companies with over $750m (£574m) in annual revenue used ‘non-traditional’ monitoring techniques on staff…” in 2018 and further it states: “These include tools to analyse emails, conversations, computer usage, and employee movements around the office. Some firms are also monitoring heart rates and sleep patterns to see how these affect performance.”

The article shows clearly that the pros and cons of such software are controversially discussed.

With the spread of remote work (like in these days following the Covid19 pandemic outbreak), the call to control employees has become louder.

The  producers of surveillance and monitoring software claim that productivity of employees rises up to 32% when using their software.


Why this thinking is really backwards

Here are some thoughts I would like to share with you on why I believe the business world at large has it really backwards on this issue:


1. Definition of productivity

This Harvard Business Review article summarizes perfectly some of the points that many people find confusing or at least do not fully understand.

Firstly, individual productivity and company productivity are not directly linked. Individuals can be very productive in what they do every day, yet the company as a whole may have no productivity (or even a negative one). So being efficient in what individuals do during the day does not necessarily translate into creating more value for the company.

Secondly, individual productivity is difficult to capture. For a factory worker, who manufactures screws, for example, it is comparatively easy to assess his productivity: The number of screws he is able to produce (hopefully of the variety that can also be sold), with a decent quality (so they will not be thrown away), at a reasonably low cost, is a good enough measure. So measuring the number of hours he works correlates quite well to his productivity.

With a knowledge worker the case is much more complicated! Worked hours do not correlate directly to productivity. Why?


2. Type of work people are doing

Firstly, knowledge workers often produce output that is not countable. You might count the number of lines programmed by a software engineer, but different programming languages used produce different line counts even if you solve the same problem. And even using the same programming language you can come up with thousands of different creative ways to accomplish a task. If we take as example the software industry, then defining what really creates value is a hard thing to do.

But the problem is even bigger. When domain experts and IT engineers do not communicate well, like in most bigger companies, then software is often created that the customer does not want. So you can work for months, and pay people for producing the wrong thing, because you defined it the wrong way. So what point is there to monitor your employees, when they might not produce anything meaningful even when they perfectly follow the process? No surveillance will help you in this case.

Secondly, there is confusion between being efficient and being effective. Being effective means creating  value for the company and trying to minimize producing waste (discarded output). If I do my job efficiently, I could very efficiently produce waste in large quantities.  How about creating products that are so self-explanatory  and of such high quality, that there would be no need for a call center in the first place, instead of optimizing the time that call center staff spends on the phone?

We have created a lot of low wage and low qualification jobs, where many people do repetitive tasks with no customer orientation whatsoever, and at the same time we expect them to remain highly concentrated, focused and motivated.

This brings us to the reasons why people do work.


3. What motivates people

There are different views on when people do good work.

Some think most people are lazy and want to cheat their employer. They can quote figures that can prove, for example, how long people do something at work that has nothing to do with their job. They might surf the Internet, play games, read newspapers, chat with friends and family. And the numbers do not necessarily lie.

But let me give you just some thoughts regarding this perception:

Firstly, imagine you are doing some work, like cleaning your cellar, something you really do not like to do. Any distraction or excuse is welcome, so you can delay it. Now imagine you would do it for a good purpose. Would it be hard for you to motivate yourself for the job?

Some managers doubt the work ethics of their employees. But when we think about the private lives of those people: Most of them do not have any problem doing work for themselves and their families. They take responsibility and behave in an appropriate manner, without being monitored. So why is it that we need to question their work ethic in the company? Should we not better ask for the possible reasons they lack motivation and passion? May the work in itself be dull, uninspiring, underwhelming and even useless? Could we change something about the work they are doing?

Although many have already read Dan Pink’s book “Drive” and seen the accompanying video “Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us”, the message has mainly gone lost. The message has four parts:


  1. Pay people enough, to take the money question off the table. This is one thing many businesses struggle with in the first place. But without this prerequisite the following three points will not work.
  2. Autonomy. Knowledge workers prefer to have the liberty to decide themselves when, how much and in which way they want to tackle a given task.
  3. Mastery. We want to become good at anything we do, given the freedom to be able to influence the way we go about things. So, if there is not just a predefined 5-step process to follow, but I get the possibility to improve what I do and how I do it, I will try to improve. This benefits me and my company.
  4. Purpose. We touched on this already. Give people a good reason for what they do. Explain the greater good they are contributing to, and their motivation will grow beyond measure.