Productivity paranoia | Monitoring of WFH staff back in spotlight amid high sales of 'mouse jigglers'

Monitoring of WFH staff back in spotlight amid high sales of 'mouse jigglers'

Remote working has been a mainstay of modern working for more than four years now. And for that entire time, debates regarding the productivity of remote employees have been ever present.

While many bosses have trusted their staff to get on with the job, a high number have also felt the need to step up their micromanagement and keep tabs on virtually every moment their WFH employees during a working day.

This has reached such an extent that many remote workers are apprehensive about even stepping away from their desk for five minutes to stretch their legs or pop the kettle on, for fear that they’ll miss a Teams or Slack message or, worse, their status will switch to ‘idol’, ‘away’ or another variation that signals ‘I am not at my desk’.

It’s a phenomenon that’s now commonly dubbed ‘productivity paranoia’ - the concept that even if employees are working effectively, managers won’t believe it if they are out of sight.

This is worrying because trust is one of the most important components of every work environment. Without it, staff may feel uncomfortable communicating their thoughts and ideas and struggle to support each other.

Over the years of post-lockdown working, many employees have discovered work arounds to this issue, some of which are still as popular today as they were during the height of the pandemic.

Writing for Yahoo News, Rob Waugh notes that sales of ‘mouse jigglers’ are still as strong as ever, with more than 2,000 sold in the past month by Amazon across the UK.

The gadget does exactly what it says on the tin. Workers can put their computer mouse on top of the small device, which then automatically and sporadically moves the mouse to prevent their computer going into sleep mode or changing their Teams status to "away", while they step away from their desk for a brief period.

Employee surveillance guidance updated

Sales of the devices are still going strong thanks in part to the rise of employer surveillance of remote and hybrid workers, through a variety of means but primarily software that tracks data such as the mouse movements and keyboard strokes of workers.

It’s a strategy so prevalent that, in early October 2023, the UK’s data & privacy watchdog called on organisations to consider both their legal obligations and their workers’ rights before implementing monitoring systems in the workplace.

With the rise of remote working and developments in the technology available, many employers are looking to carry out checks on workers, prompting the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to publish new guidance aimed at helping employers fully comply with data protection law, should they wish to monitor their workers.

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Research commissioned by the ICO also revealed that almost one in five (19%) people believe that they have been monitored by an employer. If monitoring becomes excessive, it can easily intrude into people’s private lives and undermine their privacy.

Over two thirds (70%) of people surveyed by the ICO said they would find monitoring in the workplace intrusive and fewer than one in five (19%) people would feel comfortable taking a new job if they knew that their employer would be monitoring them.

So what steps can be taken to avoid the dreaded ‘productivity paranoia’?

Marc Holl, Head of Primary Care at Nuffield Health, previously told HR Grapevine: “Negative work environments can exacerbate behaviours like overworking and presenteeism and it’s well reported these, in turn, can lead to heightened stress states, which impact physical and mental wellbeing.

“For productivity paranoia to end, managers need to recognise their experiences as leaders, are not the same as their teams. Employees want their managers to be empathetic, supportive and show an interest in their work, without feeling like they are trying to interfere.”

Holl added: “While checking in with staff was common at the start of lockdown, it seems to have become less of a business priority, with managers feeling depleted and emotionally drained from it. However, check-ins are vital in a remote working world, especially because many employees view their managers as the most important link they have with their company.

“There is a difference between checking in and micromanaging though. Good managers are enablers, not enforcers.  Regular meetings shouldn’t focus solely on results or exhaustive checklists. This is what undermines trust and makes employees feel patronised and disempowered.

“Discussing goals, praising accomplishments, and analysing any gaps in work schedules are more effective measurements. Open conversations about these will ensure teams feel supported but also accountable for their work.”

Effective remote work requires a suite of communication and collaboration tools to empower hybrid teams too, and selecting the right tools that work for everyone is essential to enable effective communication between colleagues and teams, Holl explained.

Finally, Holl said business leaders looking to support their team in a remote or hybrid working world must understand the stresses posed and help to alleviate them.

“If employees feel they are not trusted, remote working can lead to issues like ‘working from home guilt’, when employees increase their working hours to compensate for the benefit of home working.

“It is important for businesses to outline remote working expectations clearly to ease these worries. Let individuals know they aren’t expected to work longer hours just because they’re not commuting.

“Employers should also signpost individuals towards the emotional wellbeing support available to them. This may include Employee Assistance Programmes (EAPs) or cognitive behaviour therapy sessions, which give individuals direct access to a specialist who can help them understand and break unhelpful thinking patterns and behaviours and enhance their ability to cope in new and uncertain situations.”

He concluded: “Digital or virtual therapy solutions can be effective too. Remember, for many people, the notion of sharing a vulnerability or admitting a problem, is a barrier in itself. However, some research suggests counselling conducted online is as effective as face-to-face sessions.”

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