While surveillance software is on the rise, experts say the secret to better output and happier employees is in transparency and empowerment.

Two-thirds of employers use spy software to track remote workers, according to a recent survey. That kind of monitoring is likely a pretty bad idea for employers to embrace amid an economy in which employees are veering towards record levels of burnout and the nation’s quit rate has hit a new record, with at least 4.2 million people quitting their jobs in October. Employers face a severe labor shortage and they’re under pressure to keep their workers from flaming out. 

So how do you use technology to boost employee productivity—without invading privacy or eroding trust? Experts say the answer may be in simply paying attention to the employee experience and empowering people by giving them insights into improving their work/life balance.

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Productivity rises when employees are empowered and valued.

Measuring productivity is not the key.

Simply measuring employee productivity and output or employee engagement and performance may not be enough to get an accurate picture of where workers are today, says Michael Schrage, a visiting fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Initiative on the Digital Economy.

“Eight years ago, people talked so much about the customer experience but today it’s all about the employee experience,” Schrage says. “The improved employee experience is going to be the driver for the rest of the decade.” 

Everything shifted with the pandemic, when we moved to remote work. And while many companies embraced surveillance software to monitor productivity at home, that’s one of the worst things you can do for corporate culture, says Schrage.

“It’s very much like George Orwell’s telescreen,” he says. “Is surveillance the most important thing for your company? If so, consider whether you’d be prepared to be tracked the way you’re tracking employees.” 

A better way to retain employees and boost performance is through what Schrage calls a “Net Purpose” score. It’s a take off to the traditional Net Promoter score that’s used to measure customer satisfaction.

The Net Purpose score asks if an employee would be an advocate for the organization. It explores whether an employee feels like their organization stands for something and whether they’d recommend it to others. “People want more than a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work; they want to find alignment with purpose,” says Schrage.

That idea of a Net Purpose score has gained traction since Schrage published a report called, “Leadership’s Digital Transformation: Leading Purposefully in an Era of Context Collapse.” It was the result of a survey of 4,300 global leaders and executive interviews about leadership during challenging times. The key takeaway: that burst of productivity that came at the start of the pandemic with remote work has turned into attrition. Leaders now must think about the emotions, mental and purposeful well-being of workers, he says.

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Lack of recognition is one of the key drivers of employee burnout.

Productivity tanks with burnout, but it climbs with a sense of purpose.  

Employee burnout has hit at an all time high. More than half of workers interviewed this past spring by job site Indeed said they were experiencing burnout, up from 43% last year. That burnout is driven by a heavy workload, perceived lack of control, lack of reward or recognition, poor relationships, lack of fairness and a mismatch in values, says Jennifer Moss, author of the book, The Burnout Epidemic.  

Gena Cox, an organizational psychologist and founder of executive coaching firm Feels Human Inc. in Florida, says she’s documenting a similar pattern for an upcoming book.

“People want more control over their work lives and a greater sense of self-actualization,” Cox says. “There is a worker movement afoot, and the power dynamics are changing. Employees feel they have a little bit of leverage, and they want more to life than just a paycheck. They want meaning.” 

Empowering employees with data. 

Behavioral research within Microsoft found that when people see how they spend their time and their patterns of work, they actually are more likely to develop better habits and improve—far more than if a boss watched over their shoulder and took a punitive approach.

That research drove Microsoft to introduce new workplace analytics tools earlier this year that help people see first-hand how they work and then adjust their behavior and schedule to improve their work/life balance and their performance. Called Viva Insights, the workplace analytics tool is part of the Microsoft 365 cloud software for businesses. 

Unlike other software tracking tools, individual productivity data is provided only to that worker, instead of that person’s boss. Managers see general productivity scores for their team, but not for individual people, says Janardhan. She compares it to a Fitbit or an iPhone that offers data to help you change your behaviors. 

For instance, Viva added “personal wellbeing experiences,” such as a virtual commute to help remote workers mindfully wrap up the day. The app gives you a notification to make a to-do list for the next day and free up mental space for the evening, says Janardhan. It even lets you send praise to colleagues, offers prompts to pause and reflect on your feelings, and reminds you to take breathing breaks. 

The app also identifies the best time of day for a meeting, based on your rising and falling energy, and alerts you when you’re scheduling too many back-to-back meetings.

“Information about how we work can be valuable in empowering people to be their best selves,” says Microsoft general manager of Viva Insights, Kamal Janardhan. “It’s about trust.”

In fact, peering over the shoulder of employees is a great way to lose them. Employees who are micromanaged are far more likely to experience burnout of their jobs—which is essentially physical and mental exhaustion that can lead to a person quitting or struggling with mental health, according to author Moss. 

But surveillance is on the rise.

Yet still, more companies are headed in the opposite direction, using software that tracks employees using everything from remote cameras and microphones to monitoring keystrokes. 

A recent survey of 1200 employees by Digital.com, a review site for small employers, found that use of tracking software exploded since March 2020, growing 50%. The vast majority of employers who spy are in the advertising and marketing industry, followed by computer and IT, construction, and finance. As many as 17% of employers surveyed said they were seriously investigating the possibility of employing such tracking software, according to Digital.com’s survey.

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Employers are increasingly monitoring employees at home, raising privacy concerns.

The employee tracking software may look innocuous, but some of the tools allow managers to secretly spy on employees, including turning on remote cameras and microphones and monitoring keystrokes. This essentially allows for surveillance around homes and people’s private lives. Other apps capture passwords typed into websites, monitor private messages on social media and take random screenshots of a worker’s desktop.  

And it looks like many employers are using those tools. The vast majority—76%—said they monitor web browsing and application use, while two-thirds use software that takes random screenshots. At least half of employers said they invest in software that blocks certain content and applications, and 44% use software to log keystrokes.

It’s a gray area legally.

At least 14% of employers said they hadn’t notified their staff about the monitoring activities. While U.S. employers have far more leeway than European companies when it comes to employer-employee relationships, monitoring private spaces at home becomes more a shade of legal gray—especially when workers don’t know about it, said Calli Schroeder, global privacy counsel at the Electronic Privacy Information Center, or EPIC.

Much of the legality of surveillance will center around whether employees are aware of the surveillance, and will look at how and whether that data is maintained, for how long, the security of that data, and whether it’s shared with other parties or companies, she said. 

Balancing hourly billing with being a cog in the wheel.

Productivity is a big challenge for employers, especially when clients are billed hourly, said Dennis Consorte, who acts as a small business expert for Digital.com. Tracking software did uncover some unproductive behavior. A quarter of remote workers spend five or more hours per day on non-work-related activities. Half of them spend one to four hours daily away from their workstations or browsing the internet, in particular social media. Just 7% of employers reported that their employees are on task all day. 

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While employers monitor worker activity on their computers, research shows that taking breaks can actually boost productivity and happiness.

Yet research shows that taking breaks—and even a quick Internet surf—can actually be good for productivity, health and happiness, according to data collected by corporate wellness site Keas.com. One Academy of Management study found that short Facebook breaks made workers more productive than those who didn’t give their brains a break. 

And most workplace experts agree that in today’s labor market, tracking software is a huge risk to companies.  

“Employees don’t want to feel like machines,” said Theresa Balsiger, vice president of Carex Consulting, a Wisconsin recruiting firm, “and this type of software makes them feel like just that–machines, rather than humans.”

If there’s one thing the Great Resignation is teaching leaders, it’s that employees are not easily replaceable, and today, more than ever before, their experiences at work will be the key to productivity, happiness, wellness—and ultimately boosting the bottom line. 

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