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!