While not quite a Tale of Two Cities, the issue of measuring productivity while working at home does have a bit of the best of times and the worst of times.
The best of times for many employees is being able to control their working schedule. And for many employers, the worst of times is the fear of not being able to control employees’ schedules.
Companies worry that employees are slacking off and employees worry that companies aren’t seeing how much extra time they are putting in.
Next comes technology. Some employers want to place cameras on computers to ensure employees are working while many employees feel deeply offended by this invasive surveillance.
How to make both sides happy?
Well, Louwki Coetsee, managing director at Netsurit (USA), has some thoughts on this topic. Netsurit, which has been around for twenty years and serves many manufacturing companies, received a lot of requests in March for software that could help manage a remote workforce.
“Due to COVID-19, many companies were in the position of having to manage a remote workforce with only a few days’ notice,” explains Coetsee. “There wasn’t time to put a strategic plan in place on how to achieve company goals and accommodate employees' work habits at the same time.”
But the larger issue to Coetsee was that he didn’t want his software doing what most of the software on the market was doing which was tracking employee’s specific actions. “We don’t want to create spyware that puts cameras on employees and take screenshots of their computers. So we hired an ethicist to help create software that can take into account issues of privacy and culture while creating an atmosphere of trust between managers and employees.”
This approach of viewing software application through the lens of workforce culture led Netsurit to hire Reed Blackman, Ph.D. CEO of Virtue. Blackman, a former philosophy professor at Colgate University and the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, works with companies to bring ethics into the company culture. Blackman helped Netsurit ensure that their system was helping both employers and employees.
While many people first assume that companies are trying to monitor them to make sure they are working, Coetsee said that actually many employers have expressed to him that they are worried about employee burnout. “The lines are blurring between working hours causing many people to put in more hours,” says Coetsee. “Managers need to know this information and provide more resources if necessary. And employees need to feel comfortable creating a proper work-life balance.”
So, the company created what it considers an ethical and trustworthy monitoring tool. The software works in the background, and reports on business applications and website usage. Customers can decide which applications and websites should be monitored. Other applications and websites are ignored – affording employees the required privacy regarding the usage of non-work-related applications and websites.
“We tell managers that this is one tool to find out where employees spend time and how much. We advise companies to be very transparent with their workforce and explain that the goal of this is to ensure even workloads. If the employee is working too hard, they should discuss a better work-life balance. And if an employee doesn’t have enough work that needs to be adjusted as well. This is a system that can calibrate the workload. But it’s only one piece of data and needs to be used with other information to provide a full picture.”
The product, called Netsurit Productivity Monitor, has proven beneficial to RSC (Reinforcing Steel Contractors), which is based in South Africa and manufactures steel products for construction and mining companies.
“The global pandemic forced us to reevaluate how we manage our user IT experience,” explains Andre Vos, IT project manager at RSC. “Aspects about the workplace that were interesting trend topics of discussion like “working from home – productive or not” suddenly became business-critical elements that shifted our perception regarding the user experience.
"South Africa is a country of paradox and paradigm mixed to create opportunity. We still believe that face- to- face meetings are the only effective way to interact and we manage by “he who shouts loudest”. There is even fault in my favorite saying “My favorite users are the ones I didn’t even know existed.”
Vos explains that the software provides information on which applications consume employees’ time. “More importantly it does so without invading their privacy or harvesting potential private information while still telling you everything you need to know.”
He feels the tool “allows you to dispel perceptions around what tools really are adding value to your business. This destroys another arch-villain in business – the strong personality overriding data.”
Finding the system to be valuable he said that “for the first time in my career I have a product that delivers a cure for a disease I did not know we had.”
And knowing how the workforce is spending their time is an important aspect of managing employees but the factor of trust is probably the more important element.
In an article, Blackman wrote for the Harvard Business Review entitled,” How to Monitor Your Employees While Respecting Their Privacy, he made this exact point. “Surveillance threatens to erode trust between employers and employees… Employees who are now subject to new levels of surveillance report being both “incredibly stressed out” by the constant monitoring and also afraid to speak up, a recipe for not only dissatisfaction but also burnout, both of which — ironically — decrease productivity. “
While a company can gather data necessary to ensure productivity, it must be very careful how it uses that data. “We encourage companies to have a strong communication system in order to use this data in a way that benefits everyone," says Coetsee.
And all of these decisions about how to handle workforce issues should be based on trust as all signs, including the recent announcement by Google that its workforce can be remote until July of 2021, point to remote working becoming more common. Trust is a highly valued principle by all workers, and especially the next generation of workers. And how companies handle their monitoring of remote employees could very well be a determinant as to how they are able to both attract and retain employees.