(This column originally appeared in The Guardian)
Should you be monitoring your work-from-home employees? Yes, but not for the reasons you might suspect.
According to a recent report in the New York Times, eight of the 10 largest private US employers are using software and other technologies to track the productivity of their employees in the office and at home.
A large insurance company installed software that measures how long employees were logged on to their computers and how much time they were spending on work-related activities. A social media company in Florida has software running on their employees’ work computers that “takes screenshots of their desktop every 10 minutes and records how much time they spend on different activities”, claim researchers at the Harvard Business Review.
Why? So that the company can use the data to “determine productivity levels and identify rule-breakers”. The same report claims that Amazon “tracks smartphone data for its delivery drivers to monitor their efficiency and identify unsafe driving practices”.
Surveillance is booming. Sales of employee monitoring software are through the roof, with products like Teramind, ActivTrak and Hubstaff offering features that range from tracking applications your remote employees are using and the websites they’re visiting to providing screenshots of their activities and monitoring their keystrokes. The industry is expected to growfrom an annual sales rate of about $488m to $1.7bn by 2029.
Wow. Companies appear to be spending a lot of time measuring the time that their employees are spending on the job. So should you be monitoring your employees too? Yes, you should. But not for the reason you’re thinking.
You should not be monitoring their productivity, their attentiveness, the number of clicks on their keyboard during the day or whether or not they’re doing actual work or watching YouTube. It’s a waste of time and resources. It creates a toxic culture. And believe me, if some below-average employee is committed to wasting an employer’s time they’ll figure out a way to do it without you knowing it.
Treat your employees like the adults that they are and let them do their jobs
Your employees are grownups. They’re being paid to do what they’ve promised to do in their job descriptions (and hopefully even more, if they’re good at what they do). So please: treat them like the adults that they are and let them do their jobs. You shouldn’t care how long something takes and when it’s being done as long as it’s being done on time and with quality. You need to have the right metrics in place to be sure that they’re meeting the specific, quantifiable deliverables that you’ve given them. That’s it.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be monitoring them while they’re working at home. Why? Because your remote employees — even your best ones — are still causing you a problem. A security problem.
According to various sources, the FBI saw a 300% increase in reported cybercrime attacks since Covid-19 and cybersecurity predictions reveal that the US is going to be a “soft target” for more than half of cybercrime attacks in another five years. And the No 1 reason is because you and me and our employees are working more from home and our home environments are very insecure.
We’re using older versions of Windows or Apple iOS. Our routers probably have the same security codes that came from the factory (and which can be easily found online). Our passwords are weak. Our security software is out of date. Our computers are rife with viruses and malware. We lack training. We lack patience. We click and we download and we browse and we install all sorts of stuff without thinking. Oh, and we’re probably sharing our computers with our kids. What are we thinking?
Because of this we need to be monitored. No, not our activities. But if you’re running a small business you need to employ an IT firm to keep a close eye on each of your remote employees. That firm needs to make sure that your remote workers (and you) are running the most recent operating systems, have downloaded the most recent security software, are safely configured on their home networks and are using (and regularly changing) complex passwords.
So here’s my advice: don’t worry if your employee is working on that project plan or buying shoes on Zappos. Instead, worry that your employee is doing something that’s going to cause a serious security problem at your firm. For this reason and this reason only, you need to monitor them.