Should bosses spy on workers? How businesses can solve the COVID-19 productivity puzzle

Xugar-founder

Xugar founder Sagar Sethi. Source: supplied.

Like many business owners, Sagar Sethi has directed all his staff to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the founder of digital agency Xugar has realised there’s a big difference between telling staff to clock in from home and much work actually being done, as productivity plummets in the face of the new arrangements.

“Our productivity has gone way down,” Sethi tells SmartCompany.

“If we keep going this way, over the next six months I’ll need to introduce processes to monitor people working from home.”

Sethi says he wants to implement the best resources available to help his staff work autonomously.

“We work in a very autonomous way and I personally believe in getting out of my employees’ way and letting them do their work, by implementing the best resources,” the business owner says.

“I believe in systems and processes that hold people accountable for their responsibilities, clear KPIs and support whenever employees may need it.”

Businesses of all shapes and sizes are reporting divergent experiences with working from home during the pandemic. While some workplaces have embraced moving to remote work on a more permanent basis, others have tried to get staff back to the office.

But those SmartCompany has spoken with are considering taking some drastic steps to promote accountability, amid reports that sales of worker monitoring software are on the rise.

Anushka Bandara, the owner of Melbourne-based app development business Elegant Media, says he’s already getting quotes for such software after recognising a drop off in productivity within his business.

“We’re finding a need for it,” Bandara tells SmartCompany.

“Productivity is going down and we’re already providing everyone with machines anyway.”

Should bosses spy on their workers?

There are no shortage of vendors peddling software that essentially allows bosses to spy on their worker’s computers, and although the entire thing sounds a tad dystopian, Australia’s privacy laws don’t prohibit the practice.

The workplace spying industry has broadly been on the rise over the last decade as rates of remote work have increased the world over.

Despite the undeniable privacy concerns, Sethi believes bosses are justified in wanting to keep an eye on staff working from home.

“If you work from home, your work desk should be monitored during work hours,” he says.

“Any of your colleagues should be able to disturb you … right now you call someone working from home and they don’t answer, then you have to schedule a time for a meeting.

“Before you know it, half a day is gone.”

But whether monitoring what websites workers are visiting, the emails they are sending and even the keystrokes they’re entering is the key to solving the productivity puzzle is an open question.

Big Brother the “wrong approach”

Libby Sander, assistant professor of organisational behaviour at Bond University, says punitive top-down solutions to productivity problems are the “wrong approach”.

“We’ve seen cases where Amazon warehouse workers have been monitored and they’re not taking time to go to the toilet or even eat,” Sander says.

“No one wants to feel like they’re working in some kind of George Orwell/Big Brother environment.”

While it’s still not entirely clear what the long-term impact of COVID-19 remote working arrangements will be for productivity, Sander says worker surveys globally are indicating some workplaces have actually become more productive over the last six months.

But productivity has been a longstanding problem for businesses, particularly in Australia, and even globally, where oft-cited 2011-12 research suggests fewer than one in seven workers were “engaged”.

Sander says there are myriad factors that either drive or hinder productivity and tackling what can often be underlying problems in the workplace is a much better starting point than turning on the spycam.

“A lot of this relates back to workplace culture, leadership and the process by which work is actually done,” Sander says.

“With a high trust culture and effective leadership, these things become much less of an issue.”

Sander has five tips for businesses struggling with WFH productivity:

  • Communicate more with staff, and over multiple mediums;
  • Implement regular social events to promote remote office culture;
  • Set realistic expectations about workloads in consultation with staff;
  • Try to be outcome-focused, rather than process-focused; and
  • Offer struggling workers support, not punitive monitoring.

Productivity puzzle: Big adjustments

The productivity puzzle is as complex and difficult to solve as the breadth of human experience itself, which we’re unlikely to ever fully understand.

But that doesn’t mean the obvious considerations about how the coronavirus crisis has caused upheaval in the lives of many workers can be discounted.

Sander says many people have had to take on additional caring responsibilities as schools and childcare centres have closed during the pandemic, while the mental health implications of being in lockdown are hard to avoid.

All of this is to say that for many staff, being as productive as they were pre-COVID-19 is a tall order, and bosses, in turn, may need to adjust their expectations.

“This has been a big-time adjustment for everyone,” Sander says.

“Mental health is a big issue in the workplace and we need to be conscious of how people might be going through that.

“We know from research that working from home doesn’t suit everybody, for some people, it’s more effective to come into the office.”

The pandemic has charged renewed thinking about workplace productivity altogether though as some businesses, including tech giant Atlassian, look to embrace new forms of flexibility.

Workers at Atlassian have moved to a work-from-anywhere model under what Sander characterises as a trend towards an outcome-focused management philosophy.

“Long term we will see the head office being less of a default. People will come in one or two days a week and then work from home,” Sander says.

“The genie is out of the bottle. People can work from home effectively without going into the same place every day.”

Accountability in the modern workplace

This new face of work, where bosses are becoming more focused on outcomes over processes, can still be supported by technology.

Lauren Crystal, the co-founder of Aussie productivity software startup Hassl, says workplace monitoring tools don’t have to be about Big Brother-style tracking, and can instead help identify opportunities to improve conditions for staff.

“It’s about giving team members the ability to see their workflows,” Crystal tells SmartCompany.

“You can then redesign workflows to provide new opportunities for flexibility and accountability.”

Hassl

Hassl co-founder Lauren Crystal. Source: supplied.

Hassl users have increased their use of time-tracking features by 25% since the pandemic began in March, Crystal says.

There’s also been a 20% increase in the use of Hassl’s team chat feature, with workplaces embracing group meetings.

Crystal says both trends show managers are looking to bolster staff accountability, which can be a good thing for both bosses and workers.

But business owners looking for a tool that will fix their productivity issues will be disappointed, Crystal says.

Instead, the startup founder advises companies to think about software as a way to support changes to address underlying issues, with features such as time-tracking and a new wellness module designed to promote trust and empathy in the workplace.

“Before you even attempt to look at a product, take a pen and paper, write down the problems you’re having, and then do a second column with potential solutions,” Crystal says.

“Tools can help you with those solutions, but won’t fix your productivity issues alone.”

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