The Disturbing Trend of Remote Work Monitoring

by Garrett Jackson

Sep 30, 2022

Garrett Jackson COO working remotely on his computer

We founded our company in 2018 as a remote company. While it was initially required because we didn’t yet have a business space, we realized quickly that it gave us much more autonomy, time at home, and the ability to do work on our own terms. These were all goals we had for our employees long-term.

We had no idea that COVID-19 was around the corner, we were fortunate to already be set up remotely.

While we have a long way to go to make our remote work environment an even better one for our team, the last few years have provided glaring examples of what unhealthy remote work environments look like.

I regularly see tweets like this:

Can you imagine taking screenshots of your employees’ screens to monitor their engagement? I thought click tracking was absurd, but this requires a completely different level of paranoia.

Most importantly, I think it shows an underlying misunderstanding of the employee/employer relationship. Let’s go through some of these “Big Brother” style remote work monitoring trends, what it says about the employer’s mindset, and how we at Formada believe it should work.

The Backwards Notion of Time Theft

I still remember when I was in an early leadership meeting at another company when I first heard the phrase “time theft.” 

The Human Resources department head was talking about practices to limit and curb the amount of time theft that was occurring within the organization. The examples that were given were walks, extended lunches, or cutting out of work early. I was completely mystified that he would see these as flagrant and obvious acts of time theft.

For better or worse, I’ve always been a pretty obedient employee. But when I learned that these actions were represented as the criteria for “time theft,” it became clear that I had been Robin Hood this whole time, stealing back these precious moments from Prince John Industries.

This warped concept of Time Theft is exacerbated when you look at the growing abundance of limitations or absence of bathroom breaks for employees. You’d think when you start dictating people’s bowel movements that you’ve gone too far.

The problem here is the employer sees the time and life of the employee as “theirs.” This is an inherently despicable concept that is widely accepted. 

The employment agreement or contract is an exchange of time for work. That exchange, like money, belongs to the employee. Their time is valuable, regardless of their role.

When employers start nitpicking their time usage, ironically, the employee could throw that right back at the employer.

  • Will you compensate me for the time I spend thinking about work? 
  • What about when I spent Sunday night running through how I’ll approach my client call?
  • Will I be paid for the time I spend in my downtime reading industry articles to improve my skills?
  • Will every lunch and coffee break I take with another employee talking about work be paid for?

More importantly, the time theft examples given by that Human Resources manager are things that can all lead to greater productivity. 

Walking in the middle of the workday can alleviate mental blocks and stress. Extended lunches are great opportunities where you connect with co-workers in personal ways and are able to work better together. And cutting out of work early gives employees the opportunity to dictate that some life events are more important than work. 

Autonomy Does Not Mean We Lack Expectations of Our Team 

I think it’s extremely important to give employees the autonomy to decide when that’s appropriate.

All that being said, we do have expectations of our team and how they use their time. But we trust them to manage their schedules without disrespecting them with micromanagement.

Our team works hard, but I know that we have team members (including myself) that throughout the day:

  • Go to the gym
  • Take their dog out for a walk
  • Head out for a coffee run
  • Have a long lunch with friends, family, or alone
  • Leave early to beat weekend traffic for time away
  • Miss part of the day to see their kid’s school performance

These things don’t take anything away from Formada — they allow us to have the talented people we have and for them to live their lives while they work with us.

The Terror of Helicopter Parenting

There’s this running joke at corporate jobs. Anytime someone is watching someone else type, they are prone to make a ton of mistakes. Every. Single. Time. The joke is tired, but everyone kind of chuckles and says something along the lines of “I can’t type when you’re looking.”

I don’t know how you could expect employees to do great work when they are being monitored. 

Businesses are tracking clicks and mouse movements to make sure that work is happening. But what if the employee is thinking through a problem? Do they have to move their mouse and hit the keyboard so they don’t get flagged as potentially not working?

If I was being tracked like that, I know I’d spend at least a few minutes an hour thinking and considering whether I had moved my mouse enough. Why would you want to occupy your employees’ minds with something so utterly inane?

We’ve all seen videos of clever inventions with fans or other household electronics to move the mouse or click occasionally. If people are working that hard to find a way around your monitoring, imagine what they could have used the ingenuity for instead.

The screenshot monitoring option bothers me even more because it plants fear. They no longer feel safe clicking over to Twitter, Instagram, or TikTok for a beat. Those things shouldn’t be a punishable offense.

These employers think that people will naturally want to waste their work time. I can say with total sincerity that the only time I’ve ever wanted to waste time at a job was when I was being treated poorly, not given a meaningful project or opportunity, or because I wasn’t being paid what my time was worth. 

These things are much bigger alignment issues that must be addressed. Putting “helicopter parent” measures in place would have made me double down on my unproductive behavior.

The employer’s question here is “Well, how do I know my remote employees are actually working?” 

The answer is simple. You don’t. You have to trust smart people to do good work. 

I’ve worked at jobs where managers sat in the middle of the room, employees were checked on regularly, and still people wasted time.

How We Hold Our Team Accountable Without Micromanaging

At Formada, we use a few methods to make sure we have a good understanding of the work that’s being performed without looking over employees’ shoulders all day.

  • Weekly 1×1’s – Every team member has a weekly conversation with their direct manager to talk about what they are working on, roadblocks, and to brainstorm new ideas, processes, or services.
  • Almost Daily Team Meetings – We hold a daily 60-minute meeting to understand our corporate goals, main projects, and workload. Wednesdays are meeting-free to give people complete freedom to work without interruption.
  • Deliverables – This sounds simple, but the way we know our team is working is by looking at the end-product. We pay our team to complete the roles and responsibilities outlined in their job description.

In the end, the only one of these I truly care about is the deliverables. If the work meets my expectations or excels beyond it, why would I care if they looked at Twitter for 30 minutes on Tuesday at 3:34?

People do great work when you set expectations, hold them and yourself accountable to those expectations, and, perhaps most importantly, put your trust in them. It’s really that simple.

Excessive Check-Ins

This one isn’t complained about as much online as some of the other monitoring trends. Email used to be the main indicator of how engaged someone was in the office. I’ve seen how some organizations see the frequency of internal emails as “productivity.” But after years of having middle-management create initiatives and extremely well-outlined emails ruin productivity and team morale, I don’t see how this creates productivity.

What’s worse is that responses to these emails were often seen as your level of engagement. You’d get an email in the morning and then one around 4 or 5 PM asking if you had read it and why you hadn’t responded.

With the rise of Slack and Teams for remote work, this goes to a totally new extreme. Managers will Slack their team members and if a response isn’t received within 10 minutes, they start to question their employees.

  • Are they at their desk?
  • Why aren’t they responding?
  • Are they not working and just didn’t tell me?

These perceptions then form into a judgment. If they don’t respond promptly, then they must not be engaged in work. I’ve even heard of some organizations posting messages to Slack with questions to gauge how quickly employees responded. These were considered part of their “performance.”

Despite growing up in the age of MSN Messenger and loving chat/SMS/DM style communication, I hate the expectations that some people build around it. Employees should be able to close or mute Slack/Teams to get work done. They also shouldn’t be expected to have their phones on them or notice every incoming message.

How We Hold Consistent and Non-Invasive Check-Ins

At Formada, we don’t use response times in Slack as an indicator of engagement. We also set expectations with clients about response times that allow our team members to take the time they need to write thoughtful responses. 

We’ve all known a manager who saw their sole job as some sort of hall pass monitor. They only find their value in assessing their team and doling out judgment. It’s ineffective and demotivating.

At Formada, our managers’ top priority is clear — they exist to support our team. 

Support may look like joining a couple of calls a week to troubleshoot something. Support can also look like leaving an employee alone to tackle a big project. The point is, the employees dictate the support they need in their 1×1’s and the team meeting. Then the manager is responsible for supporting their success.

When you start to think about the employee-manager relationship in this way, it becomes clear that constant check-ins in the hopes of some sort of “gotcha moment” is extremely unproductive. 

In fact, it erodes trust, destroys morale, and ultimately kills productivity — also, it’s going to waste a lot of your time, because these people are not going to stay in your organization. They’ll quit. You’ll spend a lot of time hiring, training, and integrating new people into your organization, and, odds are, those people are gonna quit, too. 

At Formada, we don’t believe that we need to constantly monitor our people to get great results, but what we do need to give them are trust and support. 

Trust and Support

As I said up top, we aren’t perfect at this. But our commitment is to never be an organization that caters to the lowest common denominator. If people are disengaged, it should be addressed directly. Putting monitoring efforts in place for talented remote workers only serves to discourage them from doing their best work.

I was pleased to hear many questions about our monitoring processes in our last round of interviews. This shows that employees know their rights and have expectations of how they want to be treated.

Hopefully, over the next few years, we’ll see more employers discard these disrespectful policies and show their employees the trust they deserve.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to hone our remote work culture, support our employees’ needs so they can do better work for our clients, and focus on delivering great products and services, because that’s what we’re really here to do.


Get in touch with the Formada Team