Bad boss! Get your nose out of employees' business

You don't need bossware to keep your people working productively. Indeed, constantly looking over your employees' shoulders is the worst thing you can do.

Do you know what I hate? I hate someone always watching me when I'm at work. I'm betting you do, too. In fact, I know of no one who likes having a boss spying on their work.

So, why in the world would you think this is a good idea? (Apparently, many of you do. As The Guardian recently reported, in April 2020 Google queries for “remote monitoring” were up 212% year on year; by April 2021, that had surged by another 243%.)

It wasn't just that paranoid middle managers want to know how to check up on employees to justify their jobs. The C-suite bought the software. Bossware vendors saw their customer numbers jump by three to four times just during the first two months of the pandemic. Those numbers have only continued to grow since then.

What they don't report is how much more productive the companies have jumped headfirst into snoopware have been. From what I've seen, I doubt very much — leaving aside the metrics the vendors provide — they've actually seen any real return on investment (ROI).

You see, everyone I've ever known who worked under spyware's eye either worked more poorly or quit. Sure, for the first few weeks they may hit the keys faster or spend less time in the bathroom. But what good is that for real productivity from happy employees who feel their work is valued?

That’s right: they won't be happy, and they sure won't feel like what they do matters. For instance, I'm one of the most productive tech journalists out there, with well over 10,000 published stories. [Editor’s note: fact check, true.] And, you know what? I spend a good part of my day looking out the window while constantly listening to music. No spyware is going to figure out productivity from my keystrokes per minute. 

It was bad enough when you watched keystrokes, but it's only gotten worse. We've gone from spyware to snapping automatic screenshots of what is on our people's screens and using facial recognition software to make sure they're actually sitting in front of computers.

Tell me, as a boss or owner, how would you like to have a camera constantly on in front of your face? You'd never put up with it. Why should anyone else?

In case you haven't noticed, people are quitting their jobs like crazy. Do you want to give them yet another reason to join the Great Resignation? It doesn't really matter that you know Joe keys 72 words per minute when Joe walks off the job.

Spying on employees was never a good general rule. For most of us, work is not an assembly-line factory where we have to bang out a widget every 20 seconds or a fast-food restaurant where you measure productivity by how many burgers you serve in an hour. Productivity is not how many keystrokes per minute an accountant makes on a spreadsheet or how many lines of code a programmer produces.

As Bruce Chew, a managing director with Monitor Deloitte, pointed out in the 1980s, “It’s essential to measure productivity appropriately. … But specialists are often trained to focus on the technical elegance and statistical accuracy of productivity indexes. All too often, they introduce methods that are very precise but ignore the real challenges managers face."

Bing! Bing! Bing!

Yes, there are a slew of programs, including Teramind, Veriato Cerebral, ActivTrak, and Controlio, that make it easy to track worker activities down to the smallest detail. But if you think simply measuring mechanical performance helps, for most white-collar jobs, you're wrong.

You can create good Key Performance Indicators (KPI)s, but invasive picky spy methods aren't the way to build them.

Instead, use higher-level Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-bound. (SMART) method to develop good KPIs. For example, I don't care how someone does their job; all I want to know is did they do the job assigned to them. I could care less if they were always in front of their PC between 9am and 5pm. Did they meet their SMART goal? They did? Good, that's all I need.

Sure, there are times you want to look over an employee's shoulder. I recall one staffer years ago (when data storage cost real money) who used up 70% of server storage on his porn collection. That was not a good use of our hard drives. Personally, though, I presume — until I have reason to believe otherwise — that the people working for me want to do a good job. It's only when I have reason to wonder whether that's true that I'd start checking up on them.

Spyware can also be helpful if someone is stealing from your company. But, again, I prefer to start with the assumption my people aren't thieves.

If you manage your company with the assumption your staff is made up of lazy, good-for-nothings, you have bigger problems — and they're not the employees, nor can they be fixed with software. No, the real problem is you’re a lousy manager and your company is already in real trouble.

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Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

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