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Using Surveillance Software for Remote Workers? You’re Doing it WRONG

Updated: Nov 19, 2021

By Alex Code

At Line 45 we’ve been working remotely for over 5 years now. Our company started as a remote company and has no plans to be otherwise. Over that time we’ve had the freedom to work out some of the kinks and settle into a comfortable rhythm with our team. The operative words here are “comfortable” and “team.”


One of the benefits of remote work is the flexibility and comfort it provides (read this article for more benefits of remote work). We value building a team mentality while allowing people to work in the spaces and clothes they feel comfortable working in. That’s why our team messages lit up when we started to see a rise in posts and information about surveillance software for remote teams.


My hope is that there are few managers out there actually using these tools. However, I have a few simple words for any manager looking at using the types of remote worker surveillance software mentioned in The Washington Post article by Drew Harwell. You’re doing it wrong.


Bad Relationships

There are many things wrong in this situation and if you don’t recognize them, you shouldn’t be a manager. Frankly, it doesn’t matter whether you’re tracking people’s every move in the office or at home. Either way it speaks of something being wrong with the relationship between you and others.


If you need any type of surveillance for any personal or professional relationship in your life, you should probably think long and hard about how you got where you are and how to remedy it. Either the relationship isn’t good for you or you aren’t good for the relationship. If you’re the one being monitored, the relationship isn’t good for you.


Surveillance says, “I don’t trust you to do what I’ve asked of you.” If you’re saying this as a manager, perhaps you should be spending that time looking for ways to build more trust in your relationship with your team. If your relationship is past the point of trust, then why are you all still working together?


It’s Like Facebook but for Creepy Managers

What’s largely insubstantial, allows snooping on connections, and doesn’t contribute to work? Many companies don’t particularly like the idea that staff are spending large amounts of time on Facebook. Computer surveillance, just like Facebook, is bad for productivity. The fact that an employee viewed an article from Wired at 11:36 AM, tells you very little about that person, what their work is like, and how effective they are at getting work done. It’s just a little bit of information that satiates some desire some people have to see into people’s lives and make judgements about them. It might help you pass the time, but accomplishes little else.


The other interesting part is, what do you do with the information you find? Ever had a distant friend from long ago who seems to know everything about you? It’s hard to have a constructive and healthy conversation that starts with, “so I was watching you through your webcam” or “I was monitoring your keystrokes on your computer and…” At work, you don’t need to know the details. You need to know that work is getting done and getting done well.


Surveillance is a Crutch

Telling people what to do and then watching them do it is far from good managing and it’s even farther from good leadership. Inspiring people to do their work and establishing key metrics to measure success, is more like it. Instead of watching people do their work and peering into their emails and browsing habits, try spending some time assessing what goals your team is working toward. These goals can then be used to identify indicators that work is being completed. Evaluate the work product. If there are clear goals and indicators, your team will probably start hitting them without prodding from you.


Shouldn’t YOU be Doing Something?

Frankly, if you have time to spend surveilling your staff, you probably either don’t have much of a job yourself or aren’t as focused on delivery as you should be. If you orient yourself toward delivering results, your team follows. Get busy helping your team deliver. This may include reviewing work products and providing helpful comments to employees on how to improve. It may include establishing a project schedule to provide clear goals for your team. It may even include ordering delivery of coffee to show you’re supporting team members as they push to deliver on a deadline. On our team, we spent time buying and shipping cookies to everyone after a successful project completion. There are LOTS of ways you can support your team, encourage good work and determine whether employees are able to meet the requirements of their jobs. Spend some time reading up on servant leadership.


Surveillance is a terrible measure of job performance and detrimental to any opportunity for supporting and encouraging your team.


What to Do?

For employees

You know your management better than I do. If they might be open to constructive feedback, try to convince them that this is an arkane and destructive approach. Do this not just by criticizing the current approach, but by trying to help them adopt better practices. Propose new metrics and be willing to say that the surveillance makes you uncomfortable. Focus on building trust.


If they’re insecure and can’t be reasoned with, work hard to find a new job. If you’re a hard worker and do good work, you’ll get one eventually. In tough economic times, be ready for it to take a while but keep working at it. You spend too much time at work to be unhappy and unmotivated.


For managers

Here are some suggestions:

  • Think about what you can do to better understand who is doing a good job. What are the key outcomes each of your employees should be delivering and how can you measure them in a transparent but not overbearing way?

  • Get some relationship counselling to figure out what is behind your distrust.

  • If you’re distrustful and unhappy, it’ll trickle down to your team and sour work for everyone. Consider moving into another position where you don’t have to trust people.

If you’ve looked into all of those options and none of them fit, you should probably fire yourself. It’s what any good manager would do if a member of their team spied on their colleagues and monitored their computer behavior.


There are times where spying may be beneficial, like when you’re in a war against someone, you are trying to stay a step ahead of your enemy, and it’s a situation that could cost people their lives. If you’re a team manager and think that’s what it should be like within your team, you’re doing it wrong.


Remote Work is ALL trust

In any work environment, trust is essential. However, with the limited interactions and limited physical visibility of a remote work environment, distrust and bad management practices are exacerbated. Remote work forces you to focus more on outcomes. Having a great personality might get workers a long way in an office. In remote work, that’s valuable too, but you can’t just stroll the office being nice. At the end of the day, the thing most apparent to the team is the work you’ve done and how you’ve helped the team. Remote work makes us focus on delivering results.


As a manager of a remote team, you will see the best results by making people feel like valued and contributing team members. It means supporting your team professionally and personally. Team cohesion keeps us all on task because we know that if we drop the ball our team members have to compensate. Sometimes that’s okay when life makes your workload hard to keep up with. But people give to those who give back. As managers and team members it is important that we give. We give time, we give compassion, we give ideas and we give trust. To me, that’s doing something right.

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