Is Someone Looking Over Your Shoulder?

By Is Someone Looking Over Your Shoulder? Holger Reisinger

During the past few years, controlling our employees’ actions and behaviors to make sure that they are not slacking off has been taken to a whole new level. Interestingly, new research shows that all the effort for control has a completely opposite effect – it is actually killing productivity instead!
Is Someone Looking Over Your Shoulder?
I recently visited a webpage comparing different software solutions that monitor your employees’ activities online. The webpage also offered a quick calculation showing how much money you can save by controlling your employees’ behavior, which amounts to around $2,000 per employee per year.

While some of the functionalities of these software products may make sense (like prohibiting employees visiting virus-ridden web pages), others left me quite baffled. Most noticeably, almost all of the software solutions can monitor ingoing and outgoing internet traffic, so you can control employees working from home, locate the position of field workers, and track what software programs the employees use and for how long. In short: spying on your employees’ behavior.

Controlling employees from slacking off seems to be a very integrated part of a modern management style these days. A recent study actually shows that 50 percent of all managers were opposed to “working from home,” and another 35 percent only “tolerated” the concept. And while 49 percent of the managers stated “inability to talk face-to-face” when asked why, a stunning 22 percent stated “no accountability,” and another 22 percent stated “slacking off” as their most common problem with remote workers.

Control is also an integrated part of modern open office space design. With all employees together in one room, managers have a clear view of what’s going on. In theory, that should make employees more productive and ensure that they use the proper procedures when working. At least that’s what numerous academic papers are still claiming, indicating that trust is good – but control is great.

It’s not working

To be honest, I find the mere idea of controlling employees to make sure they are working disturbing. Personally, I would hate to have my superiors controlling my every move. And fortunately, new research shows that such “control” doesn’t work.

While control may make people do more, they are not necessarily doing the right thing. Typically, employees overcompensate and spend too much time making sure they are noticed to please their superiors. They start sending more e-mails, especially to their managers, so that they appear active. And they log on to their computer without actually using it – thereby cheating the company’s IT systems by logging in to prove that they are active. All in all, they spend time doing stuff that does not create value – just to meet the control measures set by management.

The idea of overcompensation is completely integrated into our way of working. Even the renowned TIME Magazine advises remote workers to “…make replying to your managers’ e-mails a high priority. Get back to them promptly so that they trust you’re working, not sleeping or playing video games” in their career strategies article series last year.

The transparency paradox

The phenomenon is called the transparency paradox. According to Ethan Bernstein from Harvard University, it gets worse the tougher the control measures become. Bernstein has studied the transparency paradox for years, conducting a series of field experiments in a Chinese mobile phone factory. He concludes that heavy control makes employees conceal their activities through “secret codes” and other costly means. More importantly, however, creating zones of privacy increases performance. When you leave people alone for a while, they start thinking. Sometimes they come up with ideas that might make the company more productive, more innovative, or a nicer place to work. All of this almost never happens in a super-controlled environment. Privacy creates value.

We have similar results from surveys conducted with knowledge workers. Managers may hate the concept of working from home. Evidence shows, however, that most employees are more effective when they are not continuously disturbed by coworkers at work. That is , of course, unless employees have to overcompensate by bombarding their colleagues with e-mails in order to demonstrate that they are not doing something other than work.

Interestingly enough, research as far back as the 1950s documents that control measures are not necessarily good for value creation. Somehow, decision makers have been more concerned about how you can make control measures work in the corporate environment.

Maybe it’s time to face the facts and focus more on motivation and trust rather than control. Get rid of the control software and use the money on a great face-to-face meeting where you can create a compelling vision for your company along with your employees. And then, leave the poor guys alone so that they can actually get some real work – and thinking – done!

3 Responses

  1. Brian Mazur June 6, 2014 / 16:03

    Interesting read. I trust that employers and employees can come to mutual ground here, since the sheer quantity of the workforce will be working from home and/or out and about in the short years to come, and in order for employers to fully embrace this decentralized business model/strategy, they have to extend trust/encouragement/empowerment out their workforce, to get the very best productivity out of them.

  2. Louise Harder June 7, 2014 / 09:32

    And the mere fact that it takes a knowledge worker +20 minutes to re-focus, when being interrupted, should be reason enough for creating a working environment where concentration is a core value. Concentration is important. Quoting again: “In a knowledge based economy, we propose that a knowledge worker’s primary deliverable is a good decision. In addition, more and more people are being tasked with making decisions that are likely to be biased – because of the presence of too much information, time pressure, simultaneous choice, or some other constraints”(Milkman, 2008). If we want to achieve that, then we need to give back choice and command to the knowledge worker himself. Let people chose how, when and where and they best concentrate, collaborate and communicate right?. Peter F. Drucker writes in the article “Knowledge-Worker Productivity:The Biggest Challenge”: (..) major factors determine knowledge-worker productivity. (…) It demands that we impose the responsibility for their productivity on the individual knowledge workers themselves. Knowledge Workers have to manage themselves. They have to have autonomy. (..) Finally, knowledge-worker productivity requires that the knowledge worker is both seen and treated as an “asset” rather than a “cost.” It requires that knowledge workers want to work for the organization in preference to all other opportunities (Drucker, 1999). “Command and control” won’t attract the talent. Building a culture on individual “Choice and command” will.

  3. SarahG June 8, 2014 / 22:21

    As a home based worker I find it amusing that the perception is that I might be slacking off while I am at home. If only that were the case as I sit here at 11pm on a Sunday evening catching up on emails! I work flexibly that is true, adjusting my working day sometimes to accommodate family commitments but ‘slacking off’? I don’t think so. This flexible home based approach enables me to have a better work/life balance and ensures my company gets the very best work and attitude from me. Something I wish more employers would embrace. Imagine the positive impact on family life and quality in the workplace if more companies trusted their employees, invested in collaboration technologies and let us manage our time like ‘grown ups’. How many professional parents who have chosen to stay at home due to childcare issues, would return to the workplace bringing back some much needed expertise and loyalty? Nurture don’t control, the long term advantages to the company are far greater.

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