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The right approach to monitor productivity without destroying employee trust

Originally posted in Fast Company on 11/8/22.

With distributed teams sitting in offices and at home across the globe, organizations are exploring ways to get greater visibility into what’s happening at work. For some companies, this involves using surveillance-type tools that provide complete views into employees’ work days. For others, it involves adopting a far less invasive approach.

Mixed feelings on productivity monitoring persist and for good reason. Managers’ approaches to visibility have drastically different characteristics and drastically different outcomes. For this reason, it’s important to consider, “How much visibility is necessary to ensure success without encroaching on privacy and trust?”

There are four key recommendations for establishing a visibility strategy that preserves and elevates trust with employees. I categorize the first two as being essential design guidelines for defining the business challenge and collecting the data. The second two are focused on communicating with employees about your visibility strategy.

CONSIDER WHY VISIBILITY IS KEY TO ADDRESS SPECIFIC CHALLENGES

The most essential component of a visibility strategy is having a good reason to need visibility. The potential reasons range from challenges with identifying workplace burnout and training needs to zeroing in on process efficiencies. These examples create hard-to-see obstacles that stand in the way of business performance and employee engagement.

As leaders, we know burnout puts our talent at risk and our production on the line, and unmet training needs lead to inefficiencies and employee frustration. We also know that greater visibility into these challenges puts us in a position to provide the right support when and where it’s needed.

All too often, companies make poor investments or don’t make any investments at all when they lack visibility. For example: A leader hears that a very expensive technology is going unused by employees across the business. They learn this from managers who point to continued process breakdowns the technology was intended to solve.

But this doesn’t answer the question: Why is the technology going unused? With visibility data, they can determine who is using it, when it’s being used, for how long and on what activities. By going through this exercise, they find out the technology is only being used by two of the seven teams, and on those two teams, over 50% of the employees were hired in the past two months. Suddenly, it makes sense. The most recent training on the new technology was delivered three months prior.

Before moving swiftly to:

  • train the entire user base
  • remove the technology
  • reduce licenses
  • rewrite the process

the leader can immediately devise a training approach for the very small group of employees who need it. With visibility, this leader can pinpoint where they must invest and where they do not.

When companies fail to outline a valid why, they risk searching for things that may be intrusive or counterproductive to elevating business performance. A business-grounded why is the first step toward creating an authentic and well-intended visibility strategy.

DETERMINE WHAT VISIBILITY YOU NEED AS WELL AS WHAT YOU DON’T

Today’s visibility solutions offer a wide range of capabilities and data sets. But capability should not inform how much you choose to collect. Instead, the data you collect should be related specifically to the challenge you’re trying to solve.

Typically, business leaders will work backwards from a hypothesis to isolate the essential data that will drive their decision. For instance, if a leader wants to understand more about the hours the engineering team works on weekends, they should isolate the data they views to: Engineering employees working on the weekends for more than 30 minutes. To gain a deeper sense of the toll this takes on talent, they could expand their view to see which engineers who work on weekends already work above a certain hour threshold during the week. This highlights the magnitude and pervasiveness of the issue.

THINK CAREFULLY ABOUT YOUR APPROACH TO COMMUNICATION AND ITS IMPACT ON YOUR ORGANIZATION

As a team considers what data it needs and why, it must carefully consider how it will communicate those needs to the broader organization. I consider visibility approaches across two dimensions: deployment and data collection detail.

In the first dimension, a deployment approach ranges from discrete/stealth deployment, in which the employees have no knowledge of the data collection, to transparent deployment, in which employees are fully aware of the collection.

In the second dimension, data collection detail ranges from surveillance, in which data such as keystrokes, camera access, and mouse movements are collected, to the other end of the spectrum, which is privacy mode, which involves anonymizing and aggregating the data.

When leaders opt for transparent deployment and privacy-mode data collection, organizations stand the greatest chance to sustain and even elevate trust across their workforce. They openly communicate about the deployment of a data collection solution and they only collect the data necessary to address their business challenge in an anonymized, aggregated data way. In this case, employees are far more likely to feel a part of the solution.

Some companies will go so far as to hold focus groups and share the data with employees to get them actively involved in productivity improvement processes. Other organizations may give employees access to their own data so there’s no mystery or discomfort with what’s being collected, and they can benefit from their own personal insights.

Clear communication about collecting visibility data is critical. But so is explaining why you’re collecting it, if you want to earn and maintain the trust and collaboration of employees. For example, employees who learn their data is being used to better pinpoint overutilization will likely welcome the fact that their leaders now have insight into unhealthy and excessive working hours. However, without understanding how, why, or when that information is collected, they’re likely to be uncomfortable with managers tracking their time behind a screen.

TAKE ACTION AND REMOVE BARRIERS TO BENEFIT EMPLOYEES

The credibility of your visibility strategy is only as good as the data you put to use, whether that’s delivering training to the people who need it or introducing additional resources to alleviate burnout.

Leaders who leverage insights to support their employees make it clear why visibility is essential in today’s highly digital, distributed, and dynamic workplace. Businesses that do this well bring leaders together to assess the insights they need, and prioritize the actions they must take to remove barriers. Then, they communicate their plans to their workforce— highlighting baselines of where they are today and targeting goals for where they want to go—while sharing their findings along the way.

Companies are likely to have new challenges emerge that look different from the ones that required visibility in the first place. I caution these leaders to re-run these thought exercises as their use cases evolve.

Without routinely applying this type of rigor to their visibility strategy, leaders run the risk of collecting data they no longer need, neglecting to communicate with their workforce and encroaching on employees’ privacy.

Organizations with sophisticated visibility strategies are apt to set up quarterly visibility use case reviews to ensure that their approach affords them the essential insights they need while preserving employee trust and privacy.