Employees can’t be trusted to be productive without monitoring.

With vast swaths of the country in lockdown as a protective measure to fight the Covid-19 outbreak, a much higher percentage of employees working from home, at least those who aren’t in the retail/manufacturing/gig/service industries who are unable to do so. That increase has also led to more and more employers buying and requiring workers to install monitoring software that tracks their digital activity.

The Ad Age story quotes executives who have taken this step because they’re concerned employees are “taking advantage” of their new working situations, fearful it seems that working from home will lead to all kinds of distractions.

These fears are generally focused on one or more of three areas:

  1. That employees are slacking off, essentially “stealing” productivity from the company
  2. That employees are simply being inefficient
  3. That employees are actively looking for other jobs any moment they’re not being watched

Let’s address each one in turn.

Get to Work, Slacker

Many of the main points in this argument were debunked by me two years ago, but the short version is this: It’s a false premise to assume that 1) time is inherently the employer’s, and 2) that it’s reasonable to ask workers to completely put aside their personal lives during work hours.

If someone needs to take a personal call, go for a walk around the block or otherwise stare off into space for a hot minute, that’s *good* for their productivity, not bad. Taking a break improves focus, clears out thinking and has many other benefits. All of those are effectively destroyed by keeping someone chained to their desk and always available.

That’s all true in general but it’s even more true in the current situation. So many people are working from home for the first time and, as an added wrinkle, also might have their young kids at home with them. That means not only are they adjusting to a brand new work environment and setup, but they have to occasionally help with e-learning setups, organize activities to keep young children occupied, answer random questions posed by toddler and even break up the kind of sibling scuffles that frequently pop up.

Monitoring software doesn’t allow for the kind of situational considerations that are part of the human experience.

Finding the Inefficiencies

This is, of the three, the most reasonable. Anything that can help identify where processes are broken or inefficient is a good thing.

The problem, then, is that there are much better ways to achieve this goal than through installing monitoring software on employee machines. Employers could, for example:

  • Listen to their workers when they offer suggestions
  • ….

Nope, that’s the big one. Listen to workers. If someone says it’s a problem that they have to get three unrelated department heads to sign off on a simple request form, delaying the timeline by days or weeks, take what they say seriously. If they tell you that having 28 people try to collaborate on a document is a path solely to insanity, take what they say seriously.

There’s a role for software to play in this, but it’s very limited, mostly because the “ideal” path and the “most efficient” path are rarely the same in an organization. Companies are weighed down by decisions made based on executive preference or lowest bidding vendor, so using those to mark out what an efficient process should look like is objectively an exercise in futility.

Testing the Waters

One of the examples of this situation identified in the story is software that sends up a flag when someone takes a certain combination of actions such as downloading client lists and printing a resume. That one-two-punch indicates a worker might be a flight risk and appropriate action can be taken.


Companies should probably have other mechanisms to identify these kinds of individuals, including plugged-in managers and supervisors as well as a culture that encourages genuine feedback.

It is, at its core, an employee engagement problem. It’s problematic, then, that only 34 percent of employees feel engaged at work, especially when you consider how closely engagement is tied to productivity.

Worrying about employees when they’re actively printing resumes is too late. You need to worry about employees from the moment they walk in the door, making sure that not only are they being compensated adequately but that they are feeling some level of satisfaction from their work, feel they are able to bring their best ideas to their projects and more.

That really is the crux of the situation: Activity/productivity monitoring software is a quick but inadequate solution to problems that could be handled and solved in much more constructive ways. As with most corporate wellness programs, they are one-size-fits-all packages being sold to purchasing managers who can more easily get these costs approved than push through comprehensive and meaningful reforms.

More than that, it’s just not cool to spy on your workers. That’s true in physical environments where cameras, digital keycards and other tools are used, and it’s true in the digital world as well.