Trust your employees, don’t spy on them

Nick Matthews at Culture Amp explains why engagement and active listening are better than snooping when managing remote employees.

How can we inspire lasting employee engagement and performance in these strangest of times?

As knowledge-based companies figure out a way forward in a winter of changing rules that will  likely keep many employees working from home in 2021, there is a comparable impact on leaders wondering how they can better understand employees and keep practical tabs on this enforced and unpredictable remote working experiment. 

In the UK, there has been a trend of company leaders reviewing potential staff surveillance technologies: tools that monitor employees’ productivity at home, take images of people at their desks, and even track individual keystrokes. 

A question of trust

But in my view, this sudden interest among founders and executives in checking up on their people hour by hour (or minute by minute) isn’t the right approach.

Companies are more resilient and adaptable when there is genuine trust between leaders and employees. The interest in surveillance software is a sign that leaders are holding on to an outdated 9-5 ‘in office’ mentality, when they could instead re-evaluate their organisation’s needs, trust their people more openly, and better support their ability to deliver in these times.

Surveillance, snooping on your people, can quickly undermine staff trust. When a large multinational implemented software that tracked the time employees spent at their desks, the system was scrapped due to negative staff feedback.

And whichever surveillance tools a boss might think of using, successive research projects show that poor line management and failing to empower teams leads to staff churn. People don’t leave bad jobs, they leave bad managers. In a survey of US employees seeking new jobs by recruiters Monster.com, a striking 76 percent of them blamed a “toxic” boss for their job search.

Inspiring and refocusing company culture

Instead of nervous executives shadowing their people more closely, this is the time for employers to ensure that work remains engaging and listen to their hard-pressed employees. The pandemic is putting everyone’s performance under unforeseen pressure. So it’s an opportunity to re-imagine the future of work and inspire your employees and refocus your company culture towards high performance.

This refocusing can be done in tactical and strategic ways:

First, ensure that work is welcoming and engaging. This can be rooted in tactical, mindful actions such as thanking employees when they perform well or doing team updates with a light touch. Harvard Business Review has described how a European pharma company saw stronger inputs from junior teams to lockdown video calls. They decided that if one person needed to attend a meeting remotely, it would become remote for everybody. We are all human and a thoughtful change here or there will cause a positive ripple across the organisation.

Another tactic is for business owners, troubled by an apparent dip in their company’s performance, to organise quick-fire, “pulse” surveys of their workforce. The aim can be to find out how engaged team members feel about their work, or to spot particular areas of concern across the organisation or particular business unit.

Measuring sentiment is surely a more outcomes-focused approach than telling everyone that you will be monitoring every touch of their keyboard.

By dovetailing pulse surveys and any remedial actions within the flow of work, through tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams, leaders gain a rapid snapshot of which departments are prospering and ensure that support and training is tailored into the workflows of those that need it.

A third approach involves executives putting their ear more closely to the ground. Employees’ contributions may have legitimately fallen off as they grapple with hybrid or home working. Leaders need to make themselves available proactively to front line staff, as previously happened spontaneously in an office, to understand these challenges.

Through kickstarting surveys and more regular touch points with employees, your managers will have the data and insights to better explore people’s ever-changing needs. If you can tell at an earlier stage that an employee has struggled since their workload was reorganised, or they took on new family responsibilities during the pandemic, you can organise training and coaching sooner. 

And recent data show that listening to gripes works. Research published in Harvard Business Review has indicated that companies allowing employees a way to voice their frustrations leads to improved staff retention, especially among workers that seem most dissatisfied.

Many organisations have been proactive, using the pandemic period to refocus their culture and ensure that it is focused on adapting to customers’ and their own employees’ evolving needs.

Research data quoted in the same Harvard Business Review article suggests companies that are strategically aligned and have built capacity to adapt to dynamic environments earned 15% more in annual revenue compared to those in the same industry that were less adaptable.

A trusted and engaging workplace

Far from giving executives control, surveillance gimmickry could instead be the route to falling staff trust and declining employee engagement, just when you need your employees to perform the most.

Leaders need to build a trusted, engaging workplace: the most successful and responsive businesses are putting that culture first. Inspiring teams and enabling managers to give colleagues a helping hand or more flexible training is the way to meeting performance goals in these testing times.


Nick Matthews is general manager and vice president EMEA for Culture Amp, an employee experience platform which helps organisations uncover what matters to their people and take action. He previously led customer success and go-to-market teams at Microsoft and Yammer, after a career in management consulting at Deloitte.

Main image courtesy of iStockPhoto.com

© Business Reporter 2020

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