Monitoring Remote Employees Says More About You Than Your People (and It’s Not Good)

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Oct 22, 2020
This article is part of a series called Remote Work.

“What? All your employees work from home? How does that work? How do you make sure they’re actually working?”

These questions have become common responses when I share that everyone at our organization, Acceleration Partners, works remotely.  

My Company’s Remote-Work Journey

Back when I started the company in 2007, the concept of working from home was quite unusual. My decision to make our workforce 100% remote was initially an attempt to preemptively solve a pain-point within our niche marketing industry of affiliate marketing. 

Finding people who not only understood the affiliate marketing model but knew how to manage programs for clients was hard. Most were dispersed all over the country, so being able to have the flexibility to hire them and let them work from wherever they lived was paramount to our company’s growth. 

Although our remote work journey began out of necessity, not ideology, we also came to realize that this work model not only significantly widened our talent pool, it also allowed us to hire people who valued the flexibility of working from home. Specifically, individuals who were self-motivated, accountable, and capable of thriving in a work environment where they managed their own time and schedule. 

There’s no question that many without much remote work experience have the misconception that people who work from home are not accountable and that they’ll let their home-life distractions spill into their work.

As a fully remote global company with 170 employees in nine countries, I can say with some authority that this is simply not the case. More often than not, the struggle for most employees working from home is that, at least initially, they struggle to set boundaries that separate their work from their personal lives. 

They struggle to unplug, take breaks, to recharge, or to decompress at the end of the workday. Sometimes they even struggle to end their workday, checking their email late and leaving their laptop on their bedside table so they can check e-mail one last time before bed. 

To address this challenge, we educate our employees on the importance of setting boundaries, particularly with respect to managing time and workspaces. We also conduct training on how to keep a structured schedule and be intentional about how to use time. We also urge people to schedule breaks into their day, whether that’s a nap, a walk, a quick workout — doing something other than work. 

The Biggest Mistake an Organization Can Make

We’ve also learned that one of the biggest mistakes an organization can make with remote employees is leaving them to figure these things out for themselves, especially if they have never before worked remotely.

From our experience and perspective, employees don’t need to be surveilled or “spied” on during their workday. Instead, it’s far more important and productive for their company to invest in the training, technology, and processes to make their work-from-home experience better for everyone involved. For many, this means more flexibility around when they work, with a focus on outcomes. 

Prior to COVID-19, the vast majority of our team members worked 9-to-5-ish. Some worked 7-to-3 if they were on the west coast and wanted to be aligned with their east coast colleagues. Others who work in different parts of the world — either permanently or for just a few months — chose to start their workday at 4 in the afternoon to be on a similar time zone to their U.S. colleagues and clients. 

When COVID-19 resulted in the majority of workers everywhere working from home and kids staying home from school, even our employees who’d worked remotely for years had their work schedules abruptly upended. 

To accommodate their kids who were now home trying to figure out distance-learning and to coordinate the work schedules of their partner or spouse who was now also home, many of our employees had to start and end their workdays differently, often much later than they were accustomed to. 

The point is, they have the flexibility to do that. 

Your Either Trust Your People, Or You Don’t

I can’t imagine the stress many employees at other organizations must have felt — and may likely still feel — trying to navigate all these new work and family norms while also feeling the pressure to work during very specific hours in very regimented ways. And having their workday be monitored. 

To me, that is a clear message by employers to their employees that says: “We do not trust you.” 

My response to anyone who asks me questions about whether we use spy technology to monitor our employees’ activity on a day-to-day basis, which we do not, and why we do not is, “Because we trust our employees and our focus is on their output (performance), not their input (time spent).”

We know at the end of the day whether our employees are getting the outcomes that drive our business forward, and we would much rather evaluate their output, not how they spend their day.

I often will turn the questioning on them and ask, “If you don’t trust your employees, why did you hire them?”

Some respond with, “It’s not that I don’t trust them. It’s that I think they’ll have too many distractions at home and will work more productively if they know we’re monitoring their time and work activity.” 

This is another myth and misconception about remote work. It’s one that many sellers of employee-monitoring technology often tout, particularly to those companies that fall outside of high-compliance industries such as technology and cyber-security and thus don’t actually need employee-monitoring software. 

My experience leading a fully remote, global company for over 13 years is this: If you’re hiring skilled professionals who are capable of managing their own time and schedules and making valuable contributions to the organization, then you should never treat them like children who need to be babysat.

Not only is that unbelievably disrespectful and denigrating; it also hurts your company’s growth and success. 

As Richard Branson, a strong advocate of remote work, wisely states, “To successfully work with other people, you have to trust each other. A big part of this is trusting people to get their work done wherever they are, without supervision.”

It’s About Leadership and Culture

The ugly reality that many companies are discovering right now is that figuring out how to make remote work work for their organization is actually the least of their problems. 

Their main issue lies within the company’s leadership and culture. 

Organizations that manage people by requiring face-time or pushing for hefty time and effort inputs — and thus who are more likely to embrace employee surveillance software — do so because they have not yet developed effective leadership and management skill sets. As a result, they haven’t set clear outcome expectations, or they aren’t capable of holding people accountable and therefore only know how to measure employee output by time spent working.

Either way, spying on employees during their workday will not solve this issue and adds a huge time burden as managers must sort through this data for their team. What it is likely to do, however, is deepen employee’s feelings of not being trusted, respected, valued, or appreciated. And remote or not, that’s not a good combination for any organization. 

This article is part of a series called Remote Work.
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