With the shift to working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, some leaders are concerned about what employees are actually doing, or not doing, during the workday.
Howard Levitt, senior partner at Levitt Sheikh LLP
Yes, time theft is a concern when it comes to remote work.
A study by Aternity Inc. found overall productivity decreased 14 per cent between Feb. 3 and July 9, 2020, as high levels of remote work were maintained due to the onset of the global pandemic.
More worrisome is that the study noted those workers “were getting less productive the longer remote work continues.” This isn’t a surprise, as it coincides with human nature. Many employees will work as productively at home as they do at the office, but many others won’t or, at least, ultimately won’t. If a person takes a midday stroll, plays with their dog, watches a show or spends time with their partner or child (which they could never have done at work) and there are no consequences, they’re likely to do so again. Indeed, they might be likely to do it for a longer period the next time.
It’s a little like paid sick days negotiated into union collective agreements. If 10 days are granted, invariably virtually, in my experience, every employee is ‘sick’ for 10 days a year, but no more. Many employees, I believe, take advantage of the opportunities offered to them to put their life ahead of their work if there’s no risk of losing that job as result.
If we lived in a world where every employee worked as hard as they could every day, it would make less difference where they worked. But many will be more inclined to not work when there’s no chance their manager will walk by and notice.
In pre-pandemic times, I’d often be approached by [employer] clients whose employees were found surfing the web, making excessive personal calls or simply chatting with others instead of working — and that was in environments where those employees realized they could be caught. What incentive do employees have to not engage in these activities if there’s less chance of detection?
There can be many other disadvantages to remote work for employers, but a big disadvantage is that employees are in an environment where they can simply work less and with impunity — that, I believe, is irresistible to many.
Matthias Spitzmuller, associate professor of organizational behaviour, Queen’s University’s Smith School of Business
In a word, no.
During the pandemic, some organizations have announced the end of the traditional office and others have moved to a hybrid work arrangement. During this shift, many managers have asked, “Can employees be trusted working alone and with no controls and supervision present?”
These questions demonstrate a broader concern in organizations’ upper echelons. They ask whether employees will act in the best interest of the employer in the absence of traditional control mechanisms embedded in office-work arrangements.
The concerns have led to a rise in investments in surveillance technology that controls whether employees are present and working productively during working hours. In my opinion, these measures are ineffective and often outright counterproductive. The overwhelming majority of employees have an intrinsic desire to be a valued member of their respective organizations; they want to deliver good work, be involved in organizational initiatives and decision-making processes and feel they contribute to something larger than themselves. Whenever employees connect with this sense of autonomy and intrinsic motivation, they may feel emboldened; they can be more creative, make better decisions and act more inclusively.
I would argue that the autonomy of a self-motivated workforce constitutes one of the biggest assets for organizations. Academic research calls this the autonomy paradox — a term that describes how the absence of traditional control mechanisms can be associated with the highest levels of work engagement and productivity, sometimes even jeopardizing the health of employees who continue to push their own limits to the benefit of their organization, according to a 2011 study published in Administrative Science Quarterly.
Why would organizations want to jeopardize this asset? Implementing far-reaching control mechanisms to target what usually amounts to a few slackers within an organization erodes the very source of engagement, creativity and purpose that’s a critical ingredient of innovation in the information age.