Keeping Tabs on Remote Workers

New digital tools let firms track productivity for remote workers. But can that really be measured?

A manager was concerned about Tony’s productivity. He didn’t send as many emails this month as he did last month, and he was sharing files via attachments instead of providing links to collaborative drives. Instead of using his desktop computer to join teammates in a chat-based workspace, Tony worked alone on his tablet. It wasn’t that the quantity or quality of Tony’s work declined—it was just that the data suggested that it might.

It’s been the question on managers’ and leaders’ minds since the pandemic forced millions of workers into their homes: Are people really working? And if so, are they working efficiently? Increasingly, companies now have the tools to measure productivity levels no matter where staffers are. But with experts already saying that it’s too invasive, in addition to upsetting some workers, the effort raises a fundamental issue on whether data can truly measure a worker’s value and effort.

The software can be installed on company-issued computers people use at home or at the office as well as any personal device that firms ask employees to use. Experts say such monitoring software has been around for years, but it has grown more sophisticated as corporate demand for it has risen during COVID. Proponents say the data can provide valuable insights for leadership and be beneficial to hard-driving staffers who feel their efforts from home are going unnoticed.

But experts say the programs also run the risk of being counterproductive—leading employees to strive for more visibility instead of more efficiency. “People can get misaligned between what they should do and what they think you want them to do,” says Chris Cantarella, a Korn Ferry senior client partner and the firm’s global sector leader of software. For example, employees can be super active in sharing comments on how to revise a presentation, thinking that’s what managers who are tracking want. But the overload of comments also adds to the work of synthesizing them.

Managers can also misinterpret activity for performance, says Jamen Graves, a Korn Ferry senior partner who specializes in leadership and talent consulting for tech firms. Instead of using the data as a gauge for the adoption of new digital tools, “they look at it as a way of determining who is a top versus low performer,” he says. More goes into individual performance than just activity, of course, including quality and rate of work produced, breadth of thinking and innovation, and more. Graves also says the technology’s use can reduce trust among a staff that feels they are being supervised too closely.

To be sure, Esther Colwill, Korn Ferry’s president of global technology industries, says the best leaders use productivity-measuring software not as a way to judge performance but rather to gauge engagement and motivation. For example, leaders can draw a link between why one team feels better connections between colleagues and a greater collective purpose than another team and how much they use collaborative online tools. “You won’t get to the result you want by tracking individuals through systems,” Colwill says. “But you can get to them by looking at trends in the way productivity software is used.”