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The Harms Of “Productivity and Activity Monitoring” Of Remote Workers During The COVID-19 Pandemic

At the time of writing, there have been a total of 2,387,502 cases of COVID-19, with 164,194 total deaths across the world. COVID-19 is a pandemic that has swept the rug from under the feet of every person on this planet, and our lives have changed drastically. From Social Distancing measures being enforced to entire […]

Covid-19 Employee Concerns
What are employees most worried about during COVID-19?

At the time of writing, there have been a total of 2,387,502 cases of COVID-19, with 164,194 total deaths across the world.

COVID-19 is a pandemic that has swept the rug from under the feet of every person on this planet, and our lives have changed drastically. From Social Distancing measures being enforced to entire cities being subject to mandatory lockdown and curfews have been put in place to control the spread of COVID-19.

Suffice to say, the world has turned upside down.

An Overview of The Impact of COVID-19 on Businesses and The Workforce

As such, Businesses have also been shut down and suffered heavy losses, with the global economy projected to be hit with a loss of $2.7 Trillion as a result of COVID-19. Businesses are suffering significantly in terms of conversions.

Figure 1 Source: https://neilpatel.com/blog/coronavirus/

These are times that are tough, and companies are clawing to stay in business. Businesses have already started to layoff employees to stay open, while some businesses are sending employees on unpaid leaves, just like Virgin Atlantic did by sending their employees on an 8-week unpaid leave.

Some businesses have resorted to pay cuts for its employees, to ensure that they don’t have to take drastic steps such as laying off workers or forcing them to take unpaid leaves.

The bigger picture is clear, and it’s incredibly troublesome. But for businesses that continue to operate with employees working under new Work From Home policies, there is a larger responsibility to ensure that the cost of employment is not levied upon the workers.

These are unprecedented times, filled with fear, anxiety, and a loss of a living sense. In such time how businesses treat their employees is essential in the long-term relationship the business wants to have with its workers, the culture it wants to propagate, and the culture it wants to establish (for which it might already be too late.)

One of the leading practices that I see around me that businesses have resorted to is activity monitoring or productivity monitoring. This is a set of practices made possible by digital tools to monitor and track employee activity during work hours which include, URL tracking, App tracking, Document Tracking, and Time Tracking.

Here’s why I think that monitoring activity and productivity using software is an unhealthy business practice that sets the wrong culture, sends the wrong message, and is counter-productive to your business’ employee retention rate. I will also be talking about measures that businesses can take to reduce the harm of COVID-19, and its enforced quarantine, on their employees.

So First, let’s start with one strategy that businesses are using that is called “productivity tracking” or “activity tracking.”

Why Do Businesses Need to Monitor Activity?

There are two reasons that business owners and managers feel the need to monitor employees when they are working from home.

Let’s analyze why such a need comes about and how it hurts the business in both the short and long-term.

Productivity

Productivity management is, in my opinion, the failure of a business to establish clear KPIs. These KPIs should direct your perception of whether an employee is productive or unproductive.

If they are doing their job within the deadline that they are assigned, then there isn’t a productivity problem.

The need for such monitoring arises when you don’t have a clear idea of how much for should be expected from an employee per day or per week or per month, depending on their position at the company.

The lack of KPIs forces businesses to micro-manage and track activity, and this is something that’s risen in times when people are working from home. Software such as DeskTime is being used as “productivity trackers” for spying on employee activities.

The impact of such a step is fundamentally negative. It sends out the message that the company does not trust it, employees, to take responsibility, which is a real morale killer, and can often reduce productivity indirectly by affecting the happiness of the employee.

Moreover, if an employee can complete a task faster does not mean they are working less or that they should be asked to work more. Sure, if they’re willing to do so, by all means by mutual understanding, they can be asked to take on an additional task.

But, one consideration that employees should make, especially in times of a pandemic is the mental capacity to work, rather than just the physical capacity and time.

Talking to one employee about productivity, this is what they had to say “our company is doing the tracking thing… so I’m literally being scolded for being efficient.

And that’s the point. Just because someone can grind and finish a task earlier does not mean they’re doing less work than they should, it means they are efficient and whether or not they should be tasked with more work should be a case of whether they want to or not. This is because as long as the KPI that’s assigned to their role and their colleagues in the same role is being fulfilled, that employee is both productive and efficient. See how one employee describes how simple it can be to monitor productivity using established KPIs without activity monitoring. “I think what helps us is we basically do what we did in the office. Nothing really has changed. Do your work, and no one cares.”

Monitoring and micro-managing reduce trust, hurts employee morale, and hurts the business-employee relation to a huge degree.

Culture

Culture is something that you establish from the first day your business starts operating. Taking responsibility as an employee and trusting your employees to take that responsibility without a “big brother” kind of oversight should be part of that culture.

If in times of remote work, you as a manager or business owner cannot trust your employee, then it’s a failure on your end for not curating that culture in the first place.

Sure, there might be a few lazy employees, but how many can there be? And if there are, whose fault is that anyway?

At the end of the day, it boils down to the culture you’ve been operating under, the empowerment you’ve provided to your employees, and the kind of respect they have for the work they do and the respect they get from those for whom they work.

Activity monitoring would destroy that culture, even if you had it before implementing work from home policies due to COVID-19.  This is because this pandemic isn’t a vacuum, meaning they will remember how they were treated or, as most employees perceive it, how they were disrespected.

This will most surely impact their perception of your business and the value it enshrines and can hurt your retention rate by many percentages.

What Are Some Of The Problems Employees Might Be Facing That Businesses Need To Consider

But for now, let’s take the best-case scenario from the perspective of businesses that choose to execute activity monitoring strategies for employee oversight during the pandemic. Let’s assume that all or most employees have reduced productivity.

What are the possible reasons for the drop in employee productivity during the COVID-19 lockdown? Let’s take a look.

Effects Of Changing Schedules

For many people, going to work and coming home is the only way they can maintain a schedule. As a result of COVID-19, one of the biggest changes in our lives is a disturbed schedule.

Our bodies are not used to staying home, which is less hectic than going to work, by taking a train, or a bus, an Uber, or however you travel.

When this changes, it automatically affects your sleep schedule because mostly, you sleep after a tiring day at the office. But when you’ve not expressed your energy throughout the day as you do at your workplace, you can be affected.

From insomnia to generally disturbed sleeping and eating patterns, change and schedule can impact your productivity. The mere fact that we’re living a life that we’re not used to can result in decreased productivity, and that’s something that employees need to take into account when demanding no change in productivity levels from employees.

When everything around us has changed, keeping one thing constant is an unreasonable ask.

Mental Health Problems

There’s a pandemic, we all know the danger of contacting COVID-19, we all know people who are most vulnerable to the virus, we all know people who are fighting the virus as doctors, first responders, and social workers – all of whom are at immense risk.

A lot of us might know people who are fighting for their lives right now against COVID-19. All of this can have an immense impact on the mental health of your employees.

The anxiety of not knowing what tomorrow will be like when things will get back to the way they were, when will there be a vaccine – all of these things impact your mental capacity as a whole.

And this can impact productivity levels drastically, but what’s worse is that monitoring activity adds to this already existing anxiety. Employees perform at their optimum productivity and quality when they’re tuned in by will, not by force, and that’s something managers should think about.

Not All Homes Are Equally Well-Suited For Work

Making empathy the driving force behind your business decisions within this time is crucial. Understanding that your employees come from different families, homes, and backgrounds is essential.

If one employee is showing signs of a lack of productivity, then it’s important to understand why. Better yet, it’s important to ask why.

From family dynamics and relationship to responsibilities in these times might be affecting the performance of your employees.

The lack of privacy and peace, and the addition of domestic responsibilities might result in disturbed productivity levels, and there might not be a way to circumvent it.

Some homes offer little privacy or peace to individuals, and that’s a reality we have to face when transitioning our workforce to work from home. For some people, their homes are much harder to work from, and realizing that is important.

The best mode of action here would be to remain flexible, not just with timings but also with the workload that is if your business believes in showing empathy to employees.

How Can Businesses Be More Empathetic In These Unprecedented Times?

Purpose of Daily Meetings & Scrums

One of the best ways is to repurpose daily meetings and scrums. Divide these meetings into two phases.

The first phase can be dedicated to discussing tasks, deadlines, projects, and campaigns – the second half could be dedicated to discussing general problems that employees are facing outside of work, sharing stories about your day, discussing daily activities, and steps that are helping individuals cope with the tremendous anxiety of this pandemic.

This kind of water-cooler talk can help calm employees down, help them relax, and create a culture of care and openness, which can be crucial to the overall health of the workforce’s mindset.

Talking about one such measure, an employee at a private company told me that a weekly meeting is conducted to discuss such matters at their workplace.

We have a weekly “all hands” call where our CEO goes over the state of the business and checks in with each team on major hurdles. This helps us stay grounded and informed and a little less anxious.”

These small things matter, and if you’re not doing them, you’re definitely doing something wrong.

Flexible Work Hours

Given the kind of problems that we’ve discussed above, businesses should be open to allow employees to work on flexible hours, as long as it does not affect them in a significant manner. If it doesn’t matter when you get a social media activity plan at 4:00 PM or 9:00 PM, then let the individual tasked with the planning to work on it whenever they want as long as they lock in the right amount of hours and deliver it in a reasonable time frame.

Of course, what is a reasonable time frame is subjective, but if you schedule maturely, you can come up with a plan for flexibility without compromising on your business’ performance. We’ve applied this model at our workplace, where instead of demanding an employee to complete their daily task at the end of the shift, by all means, we expect employees to finish their tasks for the day before their shift the next day.

This means that if you were to submit a plan at 5:00 PM for me to review it the next morning, you could submit the plan even a minute before my shift the next morning, and that’s fine. This allows them to choose personalized work time that best fits their situation, ensuring that they work in hours they feel most productive, eliminating the need for enforcing productivity in the first place.

This is something my own employers at Tekrevol have been following, and from personal experience, I think this works incredibly well for everyone.

Transparency

 As a company, the worst thing you can possibly do is to not be transparent about financial matters. If there’s a pay cut that you expect down the road, all your employees should know about it 3 months prior.

If there’s a possibility of people losing their jobs, it should always be communicated at the earliest possible time.

Nothing is more damaging to an employee than the news of a pay cut or losing their job to come out of nowhere.

If you’re following a monthly pay cut system, where you only reduce salaries on a monthly basis if there’s a financial loss in that month, make your sheets available to your employees. Share your total costs, total revenue, and profit statements.

This might sound unnecessary, but to establish trust, this will be important if your pay cuts are subject to the monthly financial performance of your business.

At the end of the day, the principle is the same. Be transparent with all of your employees, take them into confidence, and then make decisions.

Do Your Best To Retain Employees And Salaries

As a business, your employees are part of your family. In these desperate times, it is your responsibility to do what’s necessary to retain your employees and ensure you don’t need pay cuts, especially for those who are in the lower-income brackets at your company.

If you’re an owner who takes a salary, maybe cut down on your own before others. If you have to adopt a pay cut, think of progressive cuts, where the higher you earn, the bigger the percentage cut on your income.

Sure, everyone has needs, but at some point, we can all do without certain luxuries that those within the lower income brackets can’t afford to begin with, let alone with pay cuts.

Leadership as a responsibility

To act like a leader is crucial in such times, and business owners and managers have to act as leaders. Talking to one employee, I found out that lack of personal outreach is also an important part of being a leader.

“My husband’s uncle passed away from coronavirus, and my manager is aware, and has yet to even ask, “how are you?” “Are you ok?” “Do you need anything?” etc. And it’s been three days. A very little bit of outreach goes a long way in these times, and leadership seems to forget that. Employees are going to remember how they’re treated for years, and whether intentional or not, it will definitely affect their output if they’re not treated with decency.”

Being aware of how your employees and those who report to you are doing is an essential part of the job, especially if you’re tasked with reprimanding them for not doing their job. Maybe there’s someone they know who is currently fighting for their life, maybe someone close passed away from COVID-19, or maybe they live in a highly affected area.

To assume that the only those who contracted the virus are fighting against it is myopic. People who might still be unexposed to the virus might still be dealing with its effect around them, and reaching out to make sure they’re doing well in such times is crucial.

During my time working from home, I’ve had multiple calls with clients and partners, and the first thing we all do is ask the other how they are doing and feeling.

It’s heartwarming, even when we live far away, just the simple question showing care from a stranger can be super encouraging, but the lack of it from someone who I report to can be disheartening. As a leader, this is a responsibility you have to take to ensure people are still motivated, uplifted, and if not at least supported in these times.

Wrapping Things Up:

Luckily, things are not grim everywhere. There are business owners who have shown incredible foresight and care for their employees. Talking to Ashley Sutz, a marketing professional, I found out that some CEOs are going above and beyond to make sure their employees feel connected.

“Our CEO has also been sending out fun “prompts” every week before the meeting. He asked us what we have a greater appreciation for during this time, and made a word cloud with our responses. He asked for our favorite songs to listen to while (joyful, melancholy, nostalgic, etc) and created a Spotify playlist to showcase the diversity in our music taste. Things like that have kept us feeling more connected.”

This is what leadership should look like during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also after this ends. If you go through the things I’ve talked about, there’s one common thread that weaves through it – empathy.

Activity monitoring might sound like a practical solution, but its negative externalities are too severe for it to be a pragmatic solution.

It sends a negative message to all of your employees; it worsens their productivity and morale and leaves behind a bad taste that can hurt your employee retention rate in the long run.

As CEOs, managers, and leaders, leading your workforce with empathy in these times is important, and activity monitoring is the opposite of that.

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