For any good manager, it will be obvious why adopting surveillance software to track an employee’s ‘productivity’ when they’re working remotely is a bad idea. Whilst it clearly highlights a wider issue of trust and empathy, it also points to a bigger problem with the traditional business model, and why some have felt the need to resort to this.

Surveillance software that measures key strokes or time in front of a webcam is clearly no measure of efficiency or productivity.  It harks back to the bad old days of ‘presenteeism’ – the need to be at your desk for long hours regardless of what you were doing, or how inefficient you may have been during the working day.

Bizarrely, one of the apps (Sneek) even boasts of allowing you to ‘interrupt your colleagues and call snap meetings, just like you were in the office’.  For many, the biggest upside of remote working is how much more productive you can be when these distractions, and the wasted hours of commuting, are removed.

If you’re the kind of boss that used to spend your day keeping close tabs on the team from your corner office, pausing only to bark out a new order, you’re clearly going to struggle with this new way of working. And, if after 6 months, your response is to install surveillance software, you may want to have a think about your management style.

If there was ever a time for more compassionate leadership, it’s now.  Management by fear, or micro management, have never been good strategies. As the CIPD tactfully suggested, ‘workplace surveillance can damage trust – bosses would get better results by supporting staff’.  Indeed.

Managing a disjointed and distracted team

Clearly, Covid-19 has accelerated the pace of change for all businesses – sadly, many won’t survive. Everyone is having to adapt very fast and the need for our leaders to display more emotional intelligence has never been clearer.

For many of us, both equipped for and used to working from home, this shift is welcome and long overdue.

For others, often younger people at the start of their careers who may be flat-sharing with no home office space and terrible wifi, it’s been understandably challenging.  The opportunity to build relationships and learn informally is currently lost.

For working parents, the demands of home schooling have had a dramatic impact on their working day, with many having to shift to a late start/late finish, or a more erratic spread of their working day over 24 hours.

Obviously, all of this has had a huge impact on teams, and their managers need a different toolkit – and a different level of support from their employers – to deal with these new demands.

Output not hours

The real opportunity is for businesses to start restructuring around their employees, rather than the other way around (and I’m not talking about the faux-bro campus bonhomie of Google here). A colleague in the recruitment sector recently described the business response to Covid as having three phases; Triage, Stabilisation and Recovery.  For those still in stages one and two, it’s the perfect time to think about your business model and how to improve the EQ of your leadership team.

Here’s a quick illustration… Pre-Covid, a key (new) team member asked to a move to a compressed working week.  The business I was working for had a flexible, employee-centric culture, but this still sparked some interesting discussions with HR, especially as the request was based on a lifestyle choice, rather than a more conventional reason, like childcare.

The shift in hours would have put this colleague out of sync with the internal customers they were managing.  But did that matter?  We spent a lot of time discussing how best to measure “output not hours”, and worrying if this would ‘open the floodgates’ to everyone demanding to set their own hours.

Few people (if any) work in total isolation. There are many interdependencies and often pretty slow timelines involved.  Deadlines get missed for a variety of reasons, valid or otherwise.

As we debated how best to manage this, it was clear that there was a fundamental conflict between the desire to offer flexibility and the need to manage projects without ‘checking-up’.  And whilst the answer to that lies mainly in trust (and employing good people in the first place), that’s not the whole story.

What really struck me at the time was the realisation that, while the CIPD and HR departments have rightly been focusing on employee welfare and a more flexible working culture, they’d neglected to think about how to help managers cope with it, or thought about the wider context.  In other words, how do we align flexible working with the traditional, hierarchical structure and an office based, 9-5, Monday-Friday, business week?

How do we manage this ‘new normal’?

For too long, we’ve only focused on one side of the equation. If we really are moving to this ‘new normal’ of remote, flexible working, the other side needs to change, too.  And this has to happen at a society level, not an individual business level.  After all, no-one wants to be the first to move out of step with suppliers, partners and competitors.

Re-shaping and re-energizing teams is often key to the work I do as an interim, and I always start by ensuring everyone is properly equipped to do their job, both physically and mentally.  You have to understand how people like to work.  High performing teams are built by listening and by demonstrating trust in them, to both succeed and to fail.  When recruiting, the old mantra of ‘employ someone better than you’, in at least one skill set, has never let me down.

So here’s my advice.  Cancel your subscription to Sneek or Hubstaff and start a discussion with your senior management team about how you might better shape the business around the staff.  And in the meantime, think about more ‘authentic leadership’, based on emotional intelligence, honesty and trust. Listen to and encourage your team.  Acknowledge you’ll all make mistakes along the way.

I guarantee it will lead to far greater productivity and commitment than any spy cam.