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Before COVID-19, CEO Parth Khanna ran a 40-person company at an office in Toronto. “It was an open office environment,” says Mr. Khanna, who operates an educational platform for pharmaceutical and life sciences companies. “It was very collaborative. Folks were working close to each other. There were lots of whiteboards.” Once the pandemic hit, Mr. Khanna, like many other organizations around the world, pivoted his company, ACTO, to working remotely. Some companies have engaged the use of employee monitoring software to prevent time theft and ensure their staff weren’t slacking off on the clock. Monitoring software can track information like URLs visited and keystrokes, take screenshots of a desktop and even activate an employee’s webcam to ensure they’re at their desk. But it’s something Mr. Khanna has never considered.

“It’s very easy to do busy work,” he explains. “Folks might think busy work equals more productivity. If I’m taking 10 Zoom calls a day, I may think I’m being more productive. But that’s not necessarily the case.”

Instead, Mr. Khanna focused on communicating clear goals with his team members. They introduced a scorecard system of goals for teams to accomplish which cascade down from companywide to department and individual team members. He’s also mindful of his team’s well-being during the pandemic by not encouraging work in the evenings and weekends and introducing blackout days where no external Zoom meetings can be booked.

Mr. Khanna’s method of trust and clear communication around goals has allowed his company to scale up from 40 employees to 120 since the pandemic began. ACTO acquired two companies in August and September of 2020 and completed the soft launch of a new product in January, 2021 – all without the use of monitoring software.

A recent Statistics Canada study, released on April 1, shows that the pace of work at companies like ACTO isn’t out of the ordinary. Ninety per cent of respondents report “accomplishing at least as much work per hour at home as they were previously at their usual place of work”. Thirty-two per cent of respondents report accomplishing even more work per hour than they used to in the office.

For staff that aren’t as productive as they used to be, Sima Sajjadiani, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour and human resources at the UBC Sauder School of Business, says that time theft is an unfair term to describe a decrease in productivity. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Ms. Sajjadiani has been collecting reports and conducting interviews with people working from home as part of a continuing research project to learn about the pandemic’s impact on the way we work.

“The root cause that we have found in our research to explain this decrease in productivity is not intentional or because they’re not devoting their time to work,” Ms. Sajjadiani explains. One reason workers aren’t as productive at home is because of employees, especially women, taking on child care responsibilities alongside their tasks at work. The Statistics Canada study found that 20 per cent of those experiencing a dip in productivity attribute it to caring for children or other family members. Another 20 per cent of those experiencing decreased productivity say it’s due to a lack of interaction with co-workers, while 10 per cent say it’s because they have an inadequate physical workspace at home.

In a typical office environment, managers feel reassured that their staff are working through visual cues of seeing them sitting at their desks. But while working from home, Ms. Sajjadiani worries that managers are replacing visual monitoring with extra Zoom meetings and undue pressure. “We saw reports of abusive behaviour of managers to their workers,” she explains. “We have examples of workers saying that their manager told them they might lose their job if they don’t work harder. And people have the fear of not being able to find another job, so they keep up with the pressure.”

A constant feeling of fear and anxiety can have a negative impact on productivity. A 2010 report from the Journal of Affective Disorders found that workers with anxiety disorders are more than twice as likely to experience an impairment in work performance. In a 2006 study from the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, 56 per cent of respondents say stress and anxiety most often affects their workplace performance while 50 per cent say it affects their quality of work.

HR and mental health consultant Bill Howatt says that employee monitoring software could be used by companies to ensure they’re logging off at reasonable hours. Or as a way to hold staff accountable to the same performance metrics and standards without bias. But excessive monitoring can also backfire on companies. “For some employees, it could feel insulting that you’re not trusting me to do my job,” Mr. Howatt explains. He believes that the use of monitoring software could affect feelings of loyalty toward a company and result in lower retention rates.

Statistics Canada reported that 80 per cent of employees would like to work at least half of their hours at home post-pandemic. And workplaces like Mr. Khanna’s ACTO are following suit with plans to spend a few days a week in the office for meetings and teamwork and a few days working from home. Some degree of remote work is in the future for many companies. Managers and business owners should consider how their use of remote monitoring styles can impact their staff.

For companies worried about employee productivity and considering using monitoring software, Mr. Khanna encourages them to reconsider. “An employee that is valued at work sees how their work creates impact and is supported in the organization, so they can create that impact will want to work,” he says. “It’s up to the leader to go back to the fundamentals of employee engagement so that they won’t need workplace monitoring.”

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