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Why Monitoring for Productivity Is Harmful to Your Team

When you're looking over employees' shoulders, they perceive that their success is determined by individual tasks, not by delivering results.

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With 66% of U.S. employees remotely working, many businesses have adopted productivity monitoring habits. In fact, about 50% of large organizations use a monitoring technique, such as analyzing email text and biometric data, to keep an eye on employees. Leaders and managers think that team members will be distracted at home without supervision — even though they never looked over employees’ shoulders in the offices before.

While productivity monitoring might sound good in theory, this approach can actually be extremely detrimental. On a subconscious level, it tells employees that their success is based on their individual activities, not their ability to deliver results. It also drives the creation of unnecessary policies, wastes valuable time, and triggers a decrease in trust (which then affects company culture). And once trust is lost, it’s difficult to regain.

For example, my company, HPWP Group, worked with a client that regularly downloaded and audited all of its employees’ phone records. Of course, the employees didn’t know this was happening, so there was a huge confidentiality breach scandal when the practice came to light. But even if they’d told employees, that kind of digital monitoring creates a “Big Brother” feeling. It also decreases two-way interaction with team members and shifts a focus to what they’re doing rather than how they’re doing.

When peeled back to its innermost layer, the cause of this monitoring mindset lies in generalized negative assumptions about people. It’s true that some people work better in structured, social environments, but many others thrive in flexible, independent ones. Determining where and how people are most productive starts with setting clear expectations for deliverables and outcomes (versus activity), checking frequently on results, and fostering professional two-way communication.

How do you measure productivity? Not in hours

Many companies traditionally resisted remote and flexible work schedules for three reasons. First, they were concerned it would set a precedent and cause other employees to ask for the same. Second, they viewed flexible schedules as a “privilege” to be earned (I’ve heard this way too many times). Third, they felt remote working would result in decreased productivity.

When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the much-needed shift to flexible work environments, these businesses panicked, assuming productivity would plummet. As a result, productivity monitoring software has been flying off the shelves. But the issue with defining success by the process rather than the outcome is that it’s ineffective and harmful to your company. And what good is a goal if you’re not using it to measure success?

However, when management emphasizes results, it can increase productivity and cut costs. We worked with a general manager at a large floral bouquet-making client who realized that production line employees needed only five hours, not eight, to complete their work. By letting people go when the work was done, the company reduced utility costs and increased associates’ time with their families — all without sacrificing quality.

So how should you go about measuring results over productivity? Use these three steps below to get started:

1. Track achievement, not activity.

Years ago, as the corporate manager of training for a large aerospace company, I was required to produce a monthly activity report. In compiling the activities of my 17-person team, I found myself looking at my lengthy list of bullet points and asking, “Why are we doing this?” and “What is this moving us toward?” and “How does this activity contribute to the company’s goals and objectives — including the bottom line?” (These questions are particularly pertinent if you are leading an overhead function for which the contribution should offset the cost.)

It might have looked like the workers were productive, but their efforts weren’t always adding to the bottom line. As a result, our leadership team changed the guidelines for our activity reports. Rather than just listing off bullet points of random activities, they required each one to start with the result. This helped us think through and challenge every minute spent in service to the organization’s mission. If an activity couldn’t be traced to an outcome, it didn’t make the cut. So when you’re tracking employees’ efforts, start with the intended outcome.

2. Watch for revenue spikes and dips.

Ideally, you should measure this result by how much money is recorded in your account bookings and the time frame these sales were closed in. However, it’s important to keep context in mind when measuring financial performance. For example, is your industry one in which 50% of buyers held off on pandemic purchases? Does it look like performance is down, or do employees not have the resources to do their jobs properly now that they are working from home? By positively assuming that employees are still driving business forward from a financial standpoint, you’ll make sure you have realistic and researched expectations set for your team.

If you see spikes and dips outside of your expected range of revenue, then it might be time to evaluate what specific aspect is causing the fluctuation. When outcomes aren’t as expected, you need to be able to determine the difference between an excuse and a valid response. An excuse should prompt coaching, but a valid response should be listened to, acknowledged, and eventually resolved through generated solutions.

3. Monitor customer and peer reviews.

We once worked with a large security company that based its performance metrics on the length of customer calls, number of calls per hour, number of calls with more than three rings, and number of calls transferred. Yet the company said the overarching goal was for each call to provide an excellent customer experience. Clearly, there was a stark difference between their definition of success and how they measured it. An excellent customer experience relates to success metrics like client retention and client feedback — not how many times the phone rings!

Because they were performing for activity measures, the customer support representatives consistently felt they were unable to provide quality customer experiences. Had employees been included in defining success metrics, they would have likely been more engaged (3.6 times more, in fact, according to Gallup). As a leader, you should work with your team to determine how to best quantify your goal.

Productivity tracking through activities communicates a lack of trust and serves as a barrier to professional, two-way communication. To appropriately measure productivity, you must set clear expectations for deliverables and check frequently on results. After all, if you can’t trust your employees, why did you hire them in the first place?

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