Managers Need Remote Visibility, Which is Not The Same as Surveillance

software developer working remote on laptop outside

People are worried about the recent rise of covert employee surveillance by their bosses, with managers using tools that can take screenshots of people’s computer screens, track their keystrokes, and count the amount of time they spend on social media websites. Let’s be clear – these intrusive tools aim to essentially spy on employees, severely jeopardizing trust in remote workplaces.

While this form of “Big Brothering” is ethically wrong, it also doesn’t shed any reliable light on people’s productivity. What does the amount of time people spend on Facebook tell you about the quality of their latest submission? Nothing at all.

But the fact remains that managers have been left with a glaring shortfall in visibility into their teams following the WFH shift. Insecure managers spy. Caring managers seek insight.

Businesses need to find an ethical middle ground in which managers can transition from the intimacy of an office to the short-sightedness of distributed teams. Basically, we need to give business leaders a 20/20 view of their teams’ actual performance – and wellbeing – without encroaching on their privacy or removing their freedom to choose how best to work.

Performance tracking is being done the wrong way, and is counterproductive

Data is essential in tracking remote employee progress and well-being, as well as the company’s overall health.

But not just any data – granular, automatically generated data goes beyond superficial indicators and tells you about the quality of someone’s work. So what does it mean to measure quality? If we were to focus on people’s work hours alone, we’d likely get the wrong picture. Consider this: half of software developers have been working more during quarantine. But this does not tell us about the quality of that work, and how much extra time is going towards bringing their tasks up to scratch.

You may be getting the wrong picture if you’re only using tools like Trello, without any of the add-ons. Simple management tools that don’t gather deeper data on the actual tasks being completed limit you to tracking whether a task is “done” or “in progress” – a mere box-ticking exercise.

Limited tools can also give you false insight, which can be even more damaging. If a team member goes silent, that can be misinterpreted to mean they’re not working enough, even though largely independent workers like software engineers may work better when they’re not communicating. When you don’t have real data in front of you, you’re basically relying on subjective assessments, and it’s far more likely you’ll lose track of how each individual is doing.

How to identify actual productivity

Don’t measure the amount of time workers spend on a task, or at their computers. Instead, rely on broader data-driven project management tools, Wrike is one example. These can tell you about employee output, but also about iterations and quality indicators on each task. Such as: how many times a pull request was sent back to a developer; why it was returned (was there a mistake or was it just for a final check up?); how many other employees participated in achieving the final product. Tools like PivotTracker can show you if a pull request has had more iterations than usual, if quality indicators are dipping, or if bottlenecks have appeared.

To correctly interpret the data you will need some qualitative input. For example, for developers, frequent reviews and resubmissions are often expected. But if a manager has the context in front of them, they can inquire in a hyper-targeted way to determine whether or not there is an issue.

Data doesn’t give you a measurement stick with general targets that each employee has to meet. Each employee should have individual targets based on their abilities and strengths. But this type of data is a consistent measuring system that will accurately tell you how individuals are doing, because you’re analyzing the same data.

Once you know what’s happening, it’s up to you to decide whether you prioritize quality over quantity. But only having one part of the picture is bound to lead to misunderstandings of your employees’ actual efficiency.

‘Big Brother’ vs ‘little brother’ (employees monitoring their own performance)

Employers can be tempted to adopt one extreme or the other when it comes to remote management. One is to exceedingly monitor employees’ workdays – “Big Brother;” the other is to let them get on with it with minimal supervision from above – “little brother.” 

We believe in a hybrid model. This HBR report states that when businesses hold employees accountable for goals, their performance improves. So let go, and trust your employees to organize and assign their own working hours. Employees should be engaging in self-observing routines, monitoring their own goals and progress. This eases stress, and it can reveal to people that they’re actually doing more than they realize. Over half of workers in a recent survey believed their productivity has increased since the pandemic.

At the same time, managers can support their employees by using the same tools and data to enable staff to operate at their personal rhythms. By this, I mean knowing your employee preferences in order to be flexible to them.

At Waydev, we found that one in three of our engineers were working after midnight since the start of the pandemic. In response, we don’t have early meetings, as we know several of our staff are night owls.

Speaking of which, fewer work meetings helps staff self-regulate. Try to limit yourself to two weekly meetings with your team: one on Friday to review the week and plan the following; and one on Monday to outline strategy. This hands-off approach will allow your employees to work more efficiently, while managers’ awareness offers a safety net if things go wrong. In other words, managers can let staff get on with it and have the freedom to be creative, but if a red flag comes up they won’t miss it.

Effective monitoring can improve employee wellbeing 

Data is visual. So when an employee’s data is off, you’ll be able to tell pretty fast. It may be almost impossible to see if someone is struggling with the challenges of the lockdown when you’re talking to them via Zoom. But with the right data, managers can pick up on subtler indicators. For example, has a staff member’s productivity stayed steady, but they’re roping in the help of one or two co-workers for tasks that they previously completed solo? Is their output unchanged, but 90% of tasks are being sent back for improvements? 

A tool like Pluralsight Flow can give you that level of insight via code-level metrics, measuring things like impact (the amplitude of code changes that happen), churn (code that has been rewritten or deleted shortly after being created), and technical debt (the amount of code refactoring done by a developer).

This information allows you to hone in on the specific problem. But always do so without applying extra pressure on your employee. Approach them out of concern, and make sure HR is also available to assist you.

It’s crucial that you have the ability to identify individual employee preferences now that everyone is tackling the crisis in their own way. Don’t force all employees into the same mold, which means gathering data not across teams, but on each employee.

How business leaders should talk to their teams about performance monitoring

Be fully transparent on the kind of data you’re gathering on your employees, and assure them you’re not tracking intrusive indicators that will make staff feel they’re being watched every time they open their laptops. In a basic, practical sense, you’re not interested in that information anyway. What a manager should care about fundamentally is employee wellbeing and the quality of their work. 

Explain that having objective evidence is crucial to making high-level decisions. As one in four US companies still expect layoffs in the future, everyone has a shared interest in making sure business leaders have all the right information.

Also tell staff how data monitoring will directly benefit them. Their personal productivity will grow – data doesn’t just give managers visibility, it gives employees insight into optimizing their behavior.

Furthermore, knowing what an individual’s strengths and weaknesses are will make it easier to move them into reskilling or upskilling programs within the company. This is something that should prick up everyone’s ears, as the World Economic Forum predicts that half of the core skills workers need will change in the next two years. 

“Creating an environment where employees can grow, and encouraging a learning culture, builds startups in which employees can nurture their untapped potential and reach long-term professional development,” says Dina Bayasanova, CEO and co-founder of PitchMe, a skills-based talent marketplace that matches candidates’ soft and professional skills with the right jobs and upskilling opportunities using big data. 

Also consider demonstrating your continued trust in your staff by allowing them to opt out, or at least customize the settings on the software you’re using to track productivity.

No one wants to be spied on during these already stressful times. Integrating tools that will bridge the gap between the office and the home office will allow managers to live up to their responsibilities – and perhaps build even better work cultures than before.


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