While every employer of telecommuters has at one point or another wished they could be a fly on the wall in the domain of their employees who work from home—gauging productivity, accounting for missed deadlines, or witnessing how long it really takes to complete an assignment that is billable at an hourly rate—respecting the autonomy of telecommuters is a key element behind a successful relationship with remote workers.
Peerdrum is a new software program that enables employers to view their teams’ desktops to witness and track their computing activities and performance during paid working time, by delivering screenshots of workers’ active monitors every 10 minutes. With the motto: “be everywhere from anywhere,” Peerdrum establishes an omniscient “Big Brother” presence that’s likely to make telecommuters cringe, and rightly so. This type of surveillance establishes an unhealthy working dynamic as opposed to encouraging staff to be productive.
While it’s a worker’s prerogative to click the “check out” button in the Peerdrum program whenever they wish, a clock ticks and tallies the moments spent doing anything other than work tasks, and they won’t be paid during that time. The folks at Peerdrum offer, “No one likes feeling spied on, so we try to keep the power in the team’s hands by allowing them to pause the monitoring whenever they want a break, which also pauses their time tracking so billing is more accurate and honest.”
In an effort to defend Peerdrum, which has received some cynical criticism thus far, Peerdrum founder Tony Gialluca III writes in a blog post on the company’s website, “I designed Peerdrum to fill in the holes [and] to encourage teleworking. It takes balance to work or manage remotely. After all, no one wants to be taken advantage of and no one wants to be spied on.”
All this talk of “not spying” sounds like a case of “he who doth protest too much.” What is Peerdrum, if it’s not spy software? Certainly, statistics prove that cyberloafing is a growing epidemic in today’s work environments. “The U.S. Treasury Department found that non-work-related computing (NWRC), such as online shopping, checking personal finances, answering personal emails, and using chat rooms, accounted for 51 percent of an employee’s time online.” And based on a survey of 3,500 UK companies, “233 million hours are lost every month as a result of employees “wasting time” on social networking.”
But ironically, it’s not telecommuters who are wasting time on the company dime. Office workers, who could physically be tapped on the shoulder by management at any moment during the workday, are the ones who spend more hours not working.
According to a study performed by researchers from Brigham Young University, who analyzed data from 24,436 IBM employees in 75 countries, “Telecommuters balance work and family life better than office workers… [and] they can maintain that balance even while sometimes squeezing in a couple extra days’ worth of work each week.” The lead study author adds, “Managers were initially skeptical about the wisdom of working at home and said things like, ‘If we can’t see them, how can we know they are working?’” But, “Nowadays more than 80 percent of IBM managers agree that productivity increases in a flexible environment.”
And given the recession, researchers explain why telecommuting is even more appealing. “A down economy may actually give impetus to flexibility because most options save money or are cost-neutral. Flexible work options are associated with higher job satisfaction, boosting morale when it may be suffering in a down economy.”
Still not convinced you may get more bang for your buck employing telecommuters and encouraging autonomy? As reported in the Journal of Applied Psychology, results of a study on telecommuting show, “telecommuting has an overall beneficial effect because the arrangement provides employees with more control over how they do their work. Autonomy is a major factor in worker satisfaction and this rings true in our analysis. We found that telecommuters reported more job satisfaction, less motivation to leave the company, less stress, improved work-family balance, and higher performance ratings by supervisors.”
I think the best way to manage work-at-home contractors is not snoopy Big Brother software like Peerdrum, but is instead to have people manage themselves and manage their own time. Let employees set their own hours and pay them for deliverables, rather than on an hourly basis. If someone wants to take a three hour recharging break, that is their own prerogative, and they just need to find a way to make it work and get the job done—whether that involves working more hours in the evening or just working efficiently.
The bottom line is, if you have to micro-manage employees with surveillance programs like Peerdrum, treating them like they are kindergartners, you don’t have good people working for you. There are plenty of other ways to check in with your staff: email, instant messaging, charting progress on Google Documents, that don’t involve babysitting—which is in and of itself the biggest waste of time and the black hole of productivity.