Monitoring Remote Workers: What Employers Need to Consider

Remote work, initially adopted as a necessary emergency measure during the early onset of the pandemic, has proven remarkably popular with workers who, more than three years later, are reluctant to part with its many benefits.  However, as employers revise their remote-work policies in light of this shift in preference toward hybrid and flexible work models, they must carefully consider how to address the emerging challenges associated with remote work. 

Chief among these concerns is the question of remote worker productivity, which has led many organizations to consider employing various forms of monitoring their offsite workers.  But the solution is far more context-dependent than employers may think, and poor execution of a monitoring policy may actually hurt productivity more than it helps.. That’s why it is crucial that employers assess their company’s needs and culture along with the pros and cons of monitoring remote workers to ensure that their policy decisions are effective, acceptable, and legal.  A recent article from SHRM provides a useful outline of what employers should consider.

The Pros:
Obviously, it is ultimately in the best interest of employers for employees to be available and working during their scheduled hours, and it can be far trickier to confirm that this is the case when employees are logging on from their homes and not the office or cubicle across the hall. 

A wide array of monitoring options exist to address this challenge: from relatively simple and unobtrusive methods such as confirming a worker’s ‘active’ status on platforms like Slack or Teams to much more sophisticated and involved monitoring systems.  Such systems can track keystrokes and other metrics to determine when a worker’s online activity is unrelated to their job.  This degree and specificity of data can provide some valuable insights and desired outcomes for employers, such as:

Better Timekeeping
For hourly employees, the precise tracking of time spent working that monitoring systems can provide may help address wage and hour issues that arise when nonexempt workers go remote.

Elevated Worker Accountability
When employees are aware that their activity during working hours is being monitored, they are often more judicious of how they use their time, spending more time on tasks and less on distractions.

Improvement of Processes
Many of the more advanced monitoring systems produce data that is useful beyond confirming that employees are on-task.  Program analytics can help employers troubleshoot and optimize processes and procedures.

Relevant Feedback
In addition to process optimization, the data produced by analytic monitoring programs can be instrumental when it is time to review and evaluate staff.

Workload Oversight
Monitoring how employees spend their time at work can also provide crucial insight into which team members may have too much on their plate, allowing managers to redistribute and adjust as needed to help prevent employee burnout.

Protection of Sensitive Information
Finally, monitoring remote work can help keep better track of sensitive information to prevent loss or theft.

The Cons:
However, advanced monitoring of offsite workers comes with significant potential drawbacks that decision-makers should carefully consider before adopting a policy of strict monitoring, as they may unintentionally produce results opposite to those they desire, including:

Violation of Employee Privacy & Potential Legal Non-Compliance
According to Risa Boerner, an attorney with Fisher Phillips in Philadelphia, implementing monitoring measures can carry a significant risk of violation of state and even federal laws around data and privacy.  Federal stored communication statutes, state and local wiretap laws, privacy laws, notice requirements, and GPS monitoring restrictions all must be carefully reviewed and complied with when an employer elects to monitor the activity of their remote employees.  This can become even more complicated when a company is based in one state and employs remote workers based in different states, as laws may vary significantly. 

To mitigate these risks, Boerner recommends that employers review their proposed remote work policies with legal counsel and limit the scope of monitoring to avoid collecting unnecessary and potentially-sensitive data about employees. Additionally, she suggests that employers commit to providing adequate notice and being as transparent as possible with workers about what policies are being implemented, what data is being collected, and how it is being used.

Risk to Employee Morale and Sense of Trust
Another factor to consider is the impact of monitoring on employee morale and company culture.  Rigorous monitoring with little transparency around what is being tracked and for what purpose can cause workers to feel surveilled and micromanaged by their employer.  These feelings can contribute to dissatisfaction and disengagement, leading to less productivity and a strained work environment.

The Alternatives:
Before you resort to stringent monitoring of your employees, consider the specific needs of your organization and whether those needs could be met using less drastic and potentially alienating measures.

Less Invasive Productivity Management
Folks in leadership or management positions within an organization can consider holding regular check-ins with their teams via videoconference or phone call to holistically gauge what employees are working on and how much progress they’re making. 

Another viable option is having workers track and document their own progress on projects and tasks, which affords a sense of agency that external monitoring does not.

Finally, simple timekeeping software can help monitor when employees clock in and out without gathering a degree of data that employees can find distasteful.

Ensuring Sensitive Data is Protected
Security-specific software can help keep sensitive data and trade secrets confidential by restricting the ability of employees to save, copy, or print certain content and documents.

Avoiding Distraction
Rather than instituting direct monitoring to prevent time wasting, employers can develop logical and transparent computer use policies with the input of their teams.  These measures, alongside the use of programs that limit access to websites that are common culprits in time spent off-task, can help employees focus on work without feeling as micromanaged.

Analytic Metrics Over Direct Surveillance
Finally, should you determine that some form of monitoring is the right choice for your organization and staff, employ monitoring programs that analyze performance metrics rather than measures such as requiring workers to be visible on webcam. In addition to being far less invasive, these means produce insights that can be useful to both employers and employees, which may provoke fewer objections than simple surveillance.

Remote, hybrid, and flexible work environments are new frontiers for workers and employers alike.  When establishing your organization’s remote work policy, remember to weigh monitoring productivity alongside the type of workplace and culture you want to cultivate, as well as your legal and ethical obligations. Undergoing such considerations now can help ensure that the policy you ultimately produce is effective and beneficial to all.