Monitoring the Remote Employee: Oversight or an Overstep?

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the workplace in many ways. Arguably, one of the biggest changes has been where people work. The increase in remote work has tested the adaptability and flexibility of managers and employers worldwide, and raised questions as to how employers should monitor the productivity of employees. Continue reading for insight into the virtual monitoring technology available to help examine employee productivity, the effects this technology has on the productivity of employees, why employers are resorting to these programs, and how they change the employer-employee relationship.



“Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort." - Paul J. Meyer

Monitoring software trends

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically increased the number of employers who are using technology to monitor their employees. In June of 2020, 16% of employers were using monitoring software for their remote employees (Baker, 2020). This number has increased to 78% by July of 2021 (ExpressVPN, 2021). The increase in monitoring software usage has inspired multiple perspectives and reactions.


The employers’ perspective

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual employee management was a foreign concept to many managers and employees. It has been reported that “the biggest driver behind employers’ growing interest in surveillance is their uncertainty and unease” in employee productivity. Consider the following statistics about the employers’ perspective from ExpressVPN’s research:

  • 74% say remote work makes them feel a lack of control over their businesses

  • 69% feel uneasy about remote work because they can’t observe employees in person

  • 57% don’t trust their employees to work without in-person supervision

  • 59% don’t trust their employees to work without digital supervision


Uncertainty and distrust are driving the use of surveillance technology. Having surveillance systems in place gives managers an additional blanket of security against procrastination and fraud by providing detailed statistics about keystrokes, productivity levels, email usage, phone usage, and additional insights. However, managers in the traditional face-to-face workplace would not have access to product information that was this detailed.


The employees’ perspective

Employees are now faced with learning how to manage home-life and work-life balance without a physical separation between work and home. However, with these challenges, employees are reportedly working more and being more productive (Sorensen, 2021). As surveillance strategies are increasingly incorporated into the remote workplace, employees have several perspectives. Consider the following results from a survey done by ExpressVPN in 2021:

  • 59% report feeling stress and/or anxiety about their employer surveilling their online activity

  • 38% feel more pressure to be actively online than doing actual productive work

  • 36% feel pressure to work longer hours in general

  • 20% feel dehumanized as a result of workplace surveillance

  • 43% say it’s a violation of trust

  • 28% say it makes them feel unappreciated

  • 26% say it makes them feel resentment


Employees under virtual surveillance feel distrusted and in some cases like they have a virtual babysitter. Some sources have started calling this surveillance technology “tattleware” or “bossware” because of the implications it has on employees (Bernstein, 2021).


“Without proper self-evaluation, failure is inevitable.” - John Wooden

Current monitoring softwares

There are many monitoring software programs available to track remote employee productivity. A few popular programs include StaffCop, Teramind, Hubstaff, CleverControl, and Time Doctor. These programs all include activity tracking, workplace screenshots, keystroke logging, and screen recording (Finnegan, 2020). On Teramind, employers can log onto the program, see which employees are logged on, what those employees are doing, what websites they are visiting, their total time worked, and their activity levels.


There is even an option to see the employee’s screen in live time which allows the employer or manager to take over control of their computer and review their history. Additionally, the employer can see incoming and going emails along with their attachments and contents. The program can also be customized to prioritize certain websites, apps, “behavior alerts,” “printed documents,” “social media,” and “web searches” among many other criteria (Teramind).


Other monitoring software allows employers to record employees from their webcam or laptop cameras. CleverControl offers employers options to “record everything” in an employer’s “camera’s field of view.” This allows employers to verify if the employee is doing the work themselves and working when they are logged in.


Benefits of virtual monitoring


“Technology is best when it brings people together.” - Matt Mullenweg

Increased communication

Virtual employee monitoring can assist managers and supervisors in identifying those employees who need assistance or additional support in achieving their workplace goals (Jeske, 2021). As employees adjust to remote work, this additional support can be paramount to the employee and corporate success. For example, if an employee is found researching ways to reduce the noise in their workplace environment, employers can contact the employee and offer to supply noise-canceling headphones. However, it is important to ensure that the increased communication does not excessively exceed the traditional workplace’s communication. This could make employees feel like they are overly monitored and increase the likelihood of them feeling overwhelmed.


Increased team organization

With the data that virtual employee monitoring provides employers and managers, team organization can be optimized. Managers can use productivity data to “help allocate new tasks on time and in line with capabilities of the employee” (Jeske, 2021). If virtual monitoring programs assess what hours employees are most productive, time-sensitive tasks can be allocated to employees that are currently active. Furthermore, some virtual monitoring programs offer assistance for task organization. This allows employers and managers to monitor the progress made on specific tasks.


Increased productivity

Many studies indicate that there are potential increases in productivity when employees are virtually monitored (Jeske & Santuzzi, 2015). When employees know that they are being virtually monitored, 36% “feel pressure to work longer hours in general” (ExpressVPN, 2021). Virtual employee monitoring programs place additional importance on productivity and have the potential to encourage those employees who are prone to distraction and procrastination to achieve their best work while at home.

“With opportunity comes responsibility.” - Winston Churchill

Increased likelihood of employee-employer engagement

Employers who virtually monitor their employees have the opportunity to use the collected data to further assist their staff. If managers notice that an employee’s level of productivity or production is decreasing, they can address the employee with the goal to understand the drop in productivity and provide support as needed.


Employers can also be notified if employees are not taking breaks in order to rejuvenate or refresh. Employers can then encourage employees to take care of their mental health with a periodical break when necessary (Griffin, 2020). This can help reduce the potential for employee burnout and turnover due to stress. Furthermore, if employers notice that employees are exceeding their expectations and meeting goals with great success, employers can then intentionally reward and commend employees who are exceptionally productive or successful (Griffin, 2020).


“Be not afraid of growing slowly, be afraid only of standing still.” - Chinese Proverb

Potential drawbacks to virtual monitoring


Legal and privacy concerns

Many employees that are working from home do not have their own private office. This means they can’t guarantee the privacy away from family and guests that traditional office spaces would provide. Employees that do not have a distinct office space are a particularly challenging factor for employers who want to use video camera monitoring because family members such as children and spouses can appear unintended in video recordings. In these cases, employers are “capturing aspects of their [employees’] private lives that [they] have no legal right to intrude” upon (Jeske, 2021). Furthermore, having access to employees’ computer screens, emails, phone calls, and other operations can potentially encroach upon the employees’ private lives. In a recent study, 43% of employees stated that they “are concerned that the introduction of workplace monitoring technology could make it easier for their privacy to be violated” (Zielinski, 2020).


When choosing to implement employee monitoring software, it is important to first consult your local legal agencies to ensure that no laws regarding privacy are broken, and then reflect on how your employees’ privacy can be maintained. Furthermore, it’s important to consider the legal ramifications of “future data breaches” that could “reveal sensitive information” about employees’ home and private lives (Jeske, 2021).


Workplace culture challenges

As discussed in previous sections, the majority of employees feel stressed or anxious knowing that their online activity is being monitored (ExpressVPN, 2021). The negative reactions of employees also affect the overall workplace culture. According to research, “trust in management and teams may quickly be undermined” when remote employee monitoring systems are implemented (Jense, 2021).


When surveyed, “73% of employees feel” employee monitoring programs “would damage trust between them and their employers” (Zielinski, 2020). Employees that don’t feel like they are trusted enough to do their work will ultimately lose trust in their employers as a response. Employees want to be trusted and they want to be able to trust their employers. Research also shows that when employees are closely monitored, employees are less likely to volunteer to help their co-workers and act like they are part of a unified team (Jense, 2021). By implementing monitoring systems, employers run the risk of creating a competitive and distrustful virtual workplace.


“Management is nothing more than motivating other people.” - Lee Lacocca

Risk of employee burnout

Employees under intense virtual monitoring can be at an increased risk of burnout and resignation. As previously mentioned, ExpressVPN’s research showed that 36% of monitored employees “feel pressure to work longer hours in general” when they are being virtually monitored (2021). This pressure to work longer hours is not driven by the desire to achieve, but rather by the increased levels of stress and anxiety also reported in research.


Other research reports that virtually monitored employees are reporting “work intensification” (Jense, 2021). While this may seem beneficial to overall production levels, it can also be harmful to employees who are already working at a desirable pace. Employees who feel that they need to work especially long hours at intensified rates are more likely to skip necessary breaks for rejuvenation (Jense, 2021). The anxiety-induced need to skip breaks and intensify work can ultimately increase employee turnover, decrease employee engagement and wellbeing, and decrease the quality of productivity (Jense, 2021).


Risk of discrimination

Without proper oversight, virtual monitoring programs can unintentionally encourage discriminatory practices. If an employer integrates a virtual monitoring system without first customizing the standards of productivity per employee or job, they run the risk of placing standards that discriminate against employees who cannot medically meet those standards (Jense, 2021).


For employees that work from home and are also mothers, they may need to take periodic breaks away from their laptop to take care of their children or families. Although these employees soon return to laptops, continue their work, and still attain the 40-hour workweek requirement, the monitoring system might mark their periodic absence as a decrease in productivity.


Furthermore, employees with disabilities that have separate standards of productivity might be monitored by standards that do not account for their disability. Employees like these that require flexibility could potentially be marked as absent or distracted by virtual monitoring systems, encouraging managers to take discriminatory disciplinary action.


Employers and managers must ensure that their monitoring programs take into account the employees’ need for flexibility and the employment of those with disabilities. Without doing so, specific groups of employees such as parents, those without private offices, those with disabilities, and caregivers can experience disciplinary actions not experienced by other groups.


Decreased employee well-being

The majority of employees with virtual monitoring systems feel stressed or anxious knowing that they are being virtually monitored (ExpressVPN, 2021). This increase in stress and anxiety can reduce the quality of work, level of productivity, health, engagement, and turnover rates of employees (CorporateWellness, n.d).


The overall attitude of employees that are placed under virtual surveillance is also more likely to be negative; decreasing job satisfaction and corporate commitment (Jeske & Santuzzi, 2015). Overall, employees who are virtually monitored are less satisfied with their jobs, more stressed, and more anxious than their non-monitored counterparts.


Research also shows that when virtually monitored, employees’ self-efficacy (or belief in one’s own ability and motivations) is negatively affected (Jeske & Santuzzie, 2015 ; APA, n.d.). However, when studied, it was found that when employees’ productivity was monitored as a group, self-efficacy was not negatively affected (Jeske & Santuzzie, 2015). Furthermore, employees who are virtually monitored report feeling untrustworthy and like they are treated as a “machine” (Jeske, 2021). It is vital for employers to understand the perspective of the employees they plan to virtually monitor, and adjust their monitoring programs to best fit both their needs and their employees’ desires.


Advice and tips


“Clarity is the key to effective leadership.” - Brian Tracy

Embrace clarity and honesty

One shocking statistic indicates that many employees are unaware that they are being monitored. Currently, only one-third of employees know that their employers are using software surveillance strategies, while 78% of employers report using employee monitoring software (ExpressVPN, 2021).


In the workplace, “trust and mistrust” are “further spurred by reports that some monitoring software can be installed without the employees’ knowledge” (Jeske, 2021). However, when employees are informed “why” employers are implementing monitoring software and sharing “how” they plan to measure productivity, employees are reportedly more comfortable with virtual monitoring programs (Kropp, 2019).


The Society for Human Resource Management states that “Transparency is key to effective use of monitoring software” (Zielinski, 2020). This can also aid in ensuring the legality of remote employee monitoring. Creating documents that explain the type of monitoring that is to take place with the help of a legal professional can serve as a legal consent form as well as an informative document for employees.


Have a clear goal

It is important for employers and managers to understand the goal in monitoring employees virtually. Gartner recommends the following series of steps for employers seeking to implement virtual monitoring strategies (Moore, 2019):

  1. Identify the reason why you need to measure employee productivity

  2. Identify the question you’re trying to answer with the collected data

  3. Identify what data you need specifically to answer the previous question

  4. Identify who can see the data collected

  5. Identify what types of decisions will be made with the data collected

  6. Identify the impact that this will have on employees

Encourage an open discussion

Although there are benefits to virtual employment monitoring, it is important to discuss employee and stakeholder perspectives and reactions to its implementation (Zielinski, 2020). Doing so can mitigate some of the negative reactions that employees may have towards virtual monitoring because of their increased input.


Having an open discussion can also reveal ways in which the monitoring program can be customized to alert employers. It can also identify the specific methods of monitoring that employees would view as invasive or most bothersome, which ultimately could decrease the likelihood of negative employee reactions.


Weigh the pros and cons

Virtual employee monitoring has many benefits but also many drawbacks. It is important for employers to examine each of the benefits and drawbacks and examine how they can be optimized or minimized for their organization specifically. Reviewing responses of employees from similar industries who are now virtually monitored can also help employers distinguish the viability of this management option.


“People work in the system. Management creates the system.” - W. Edwards Deming

Monitoring software cannot replace management

In a Society of Human Resource Management article, David Johnson, a workplace productivity specialist states that “There's no substitute for managers staying in frequent touch with their people, even in remote environments… That's simply good leadership practice that can't be replaced with a productivity tracking tool."


Monitoring software provides additional insight into the lives of employees, but cannot be effectively used without good management practices. Stacey Harris, a Chief Research Officer for an “HR technology research and advisory firm” states that organizations who use good management practices that make unique policies “not based only on those outliers but on employees who get their jobs done in the most productive fashion” and make sure that employees have the “support and resources they need to keep performing at the highest levels” are the organizations who “excel” at virtual monitoring.


Virtual management software is a great tool for employers when used in combination with good management techniques.


The Main Takeaway

As virtual employee monitoring becomes more common in the post-COVID workplace, it is important for employers to understand how to best use this new and advancing tool. When used correctly, monitoring programs can increase productivity, employer-employee engagement, communication, and teamwork. However, if not used in conjunction with excellent management techniques and in alignment with your corporation’s needs, virtual monitoring systems can have negative effects on employees.


“Leadership is about change...The best way to get people to venture into unknown terrain is to make it desirable by taking them there in their imaginations.” - Noel Tichy

Resources

APA. (n.d.). Self-Efficacy Teaching Tip Sheet. Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/pi/aids/resources/education/self-efficacy

Baker, M. (2020, June 8). 9 Future of Work Trends Post-COVID-19. Retrieved from https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/9-future-of-work-trends-post-covid-19/


Bernstein, L. (2021, June 22). 78% of employers admit to using digital surveillance tools on remote workers. Retrieved from https://nbcmontana.com/news/nation-world/78-of-employers-admit-to-using-digital-surveillance-tools-on-remote-workers


CleverControl. (n.d.). Webcam Video. Retrieved from https://clevercontrol.com/webcam-video

CorporateWellness. (n.d.). Workplace Stress: A Silent Killer of Employee Health and Productivity. Retrieved from https://www.corporatewellnessmagazine.com/article/workplace-stress-silent-killer-employee-health-productivity


ExpressVPN. (2021, July 16). ExpressVPN Survey Shows Widespread Surveillance on Remote Workers. Retrieved from https://www.expressvpn.com/blog/expressvpn-survey-surveillance-on-the-remote-workforce/


Finnegan, M. (2020, October 29). The New Normal: When work-from-home means the boss is watching. Retrieved from https://www.computerworld.com/article/3586616/the-new-normal-when-work-from-home-means-the-boss-is-watching.html


Griffin, J. (2020, June 03). The Pros and Cons of Monitoring Work-From-Home (WFH) Employees Remotely. Retrieved from https://www.griffinbenefits.com/blog/pros-cons-of-monitoring-work-from-home-employees-remotely


Jeske, D., & Santuzzi, A. M. (2015). Monitoring what and how: Psychological implications of electronic performance monitoring. New Technology, Work and Employment, 30(1), 62-78. doi:10.1111/ntwe.12039


Jeske, D. (2021). Monitoring remote employees: Implications for HR. Strategic HR Review, 20(2), 42-46. doi:10.1108/shr-10-2020-0089


Kropp, B. (2019, May 03). The Future of Employee Monitoring. Retrieved from https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/the-future-of-employee-monitoring/


Moore, S. (2019, August 06). Do's and Don'ts of Using Employee Data. Retrieved from https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/dos-and-donts-of-using-employee-data/


Sorensen, S. (2021, July 07). Digital Nomadism's Impact on Returning to Work Post-Pandemic. Retrieved from https://www.aretecoach.io/post/digital-nomadism-s-impact-on-returning-to-work-post-pandemic


Teramind. (n.d.). Teramind. Retrieved from https://www.teramind.co/


Zielinski, D. (2020, August 08). Monitoring Remote Workers. Retrieved from https://www.shrm.org/hr-today/news/all-things-work/pages/monitoring-remote-workers.aspx


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