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Your Employees Hate Being Monitored. Learn How to Humanize Productivity Tracking

Surveillance-tracking methods can alienate workers. When it comes to staying on task in remote landscapes, a human touch is important.

If your employees feel like they’re under constant scrutiny, you’re less likely to retain them.

When it comes to tracking worker productivity, especially in remote, hybrid, and asynchronous work environments, when bosses may not physically “see” their employees, some monitoring tactics are contentious. More than half of workers would leave their jobs if their employer insisted on recording audio or video of them, or used facial recognition to monitor productivity, according to a May 2022 survey of 750 technology workers by the Washington, D.C.-based business intelligence company Morning Consult.

To Dan Pupius, the San Francisco-based founder of the remote workplace management tool Range, the Big Brother issue is directly related to whether leaders ascribe to Theory X or Theory Y, which were coined by social psychologist Douglas McGregor at the MIT’s Sloan School of Management in 1960. Basically, Theory X proposed that workers, by default, are unmotivated, which means they require strict supervision and rules; Theory Y, on the other hand, maintains that people are intrinsically motivated and want to find a sense of mastery in their jobs–so they can function in a more laissez-faire workplace. Subsequent researchers have studied Theory X and Theory Y in regards to their impact on both skilled and unskilled labor, though Theory Y is more frequently associated with knowledge workers.

“Theory Y is backed by a lot of behavioral research,” Pupius says. “So if your management style comes from the perspective of thinking that people are lazy and don’t want to work, you’re going to create a low-trust environment, with a lot of stress and anxiety, which will actually reduce peoples’ performances.”

Surveillance-style monitoring, he says, is not the answer. But leaders still need to find ways to make sure that employees stay on track to meet business goals. Here’s how they can do so effectively and ethically, with tactics that can even boost productivity in the long run.

Create a check in-routine

Good workplace communication requires two-way trust, says Jeanine Turner, affiliate professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business. It can take some time to develop that trust, but creating a consistent check-in routine with your employees–daily or weekly–can help. “There should be an opportunity for both employer and employee to say, ‘This is what I’m doing. Is this what you want?'” she says. “Make it a part of your weekly conversations to share what’s going well and what’s not.” That way, you can identify any problem areas that might be hurting productivity, and you can address them.

Check-ins can happen as a one-on-one process, but group check-ins can also be conducive to developing a more collaborative and team-oriented environment, Pupius adds. “Individual check-ins can feel like going up against the principal at school,” he says. “But when you share what you’re working on as a group, it’s more communal.”

Make goal-setting a collaborative process

To track productivity, leaders should clearly establish goals and expectations collaboratively, Claire Schmidt, CEO and founder of the Los Angeles-based employee feedback management platform AllVoices. “As goals are being set by managers, for their team, there should be an ongoing conversation about how it’s going,” she says. “Leaders should ask, ‘what are the barriers standing in your way to achieving these goals?'”

This can be challenging when employees don’t feel like they can be open about difficulties they may be facing, which is why providing multiple channels for feedback may be helpful, Schmidt adds. Platforms like AllVoices offer anonymity, which can allow employees to more freely express concerns that may be impacting their work–though they aren’t a substitution for the regular conversations that should occur in parallel.

Gain a bigger picture understanding

Poor productivity tracking fails to contextualize employees’ outputs, Pupius says. That’s why, during goal-setting, it’s important for leaders to understand leading indicators, but focus more on end results. “One leading indicator for a salesperson might be the number of emails they send–but that’s short-sighted. A person could send 200 bad emails, but 20 good emails might result in more sales,” he says. “Instead of making a judgment purely on the metrics, you should ask questions, that then lead you to inspect and diagnose what might be happening.”

Another behind-the-scenes factor that plays into productivity, he adds, is emotion. Through Range’s check-in platform, workers can note their general feelings for the day with an emoji, which gives leaders more context to why an employee’s output might be different from one day to the next–and gives employees context for how their bosses are feeling. “In a remote environment, you lack context for how people are showing up,” Pupius says. “If I’m a little bit short in my emails, people can attribute that to my mood and not that I’m upset with them.”

Ultimately, these kinds of human interactions–as opposed to machine monitoring–are good for business. “When you building a relationship with an employee through good communication, you give them the chance to be more of a partner in your organization,” Turner says. “Then, they’ll feel like they have more to buy into.”

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