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How To Productively Work From Home If You’re Being Monitored

Rebecca Cohen  |  May 12, 2020

Software programs now grant your boss access to your living room office and track your every move. Here’s how to keep productive when you’re being watched. 

For those of us fortunate enough to be able to work from home during the pandemic, a new world of possibilities has opened over the last few weeks. Advanced technology has made it possible for us to be just as productive (if not more so) while working outside of the office. This opportunity not only helps individual workers, but also corporations themselves, and even the entire economy, since we can maintain a somewhat normal exchange of goods and services as we hunker down and wait out the virus. 

Many of us now also have the flexibility of time. No longer are we trapped in offices, needing approval to step out to run an errand or make it to an appointment. Rather, when we’re working from home, we can do it all. Need a break to feed your kids? No problem. The sun is only going to be out for an hour and you need to get a quick run in? Go for it. The pharmacy is about to close and you’re out of medication? Head on over. Suddenly, we all have the weight of being watched lifted off of our shoulders. Clocking in is a thing of the past — now all we face is an honor code that entrusts workers to get work done on time. Or, at least, that’s how we hope it works. 

As one article in the New York Times details, some employees are now being monitored through programs that track workers’ activity and productivity. In the article, one employee chronicles his journey with a monitoring program called Hubstaff, which tracks your laptop activity each day, recording hours spent typing versus not, apps opened and websites visited, as well as time spent “working”  versus doing other things like visiting social media sites or online shopping. Essentially, these programs invite your boss into the comfort of your (work from) home and give them insight into what it is you really do all day. 

All this means that some employees, who are already under the stress of making work from home work, are now bombarded with fears over what might happen if their boss catches them on the wrong website at the wrong time of day. While it may seem helpful from the boss’s point of view, from the employee’s, it can seem intrusive and counterproductive.  

Laura Vanderkam, a time management expert and author of “Off The Clock”, is not a fan of these programs. “I find this kind of monitoring software so ridiculous,” she says. “Not all work can be measured by what website you’re on, and you’ll probably get better ideas during that 2-hour bike ride than you would staring at an allegedly “productive” inbox.” 

And she’s right. What the experimenter in the Times article found from analyzing the reports run on himself as an employee was that even after what he felt was a productive 8 hours of straight work and meeting deadlines, the software would only grade him somewhere around 40% productive each day. It couldn’t track his hours of phone calls during which he interviewed sources, and dinged his productivity each time he checked Twitter or opened a text message. But let’s face it — we all do those things during work hours, even in the office. 

If you find yourself on the receiving end of one of these programs (i.e. being “Big Brothered” from home), the most important thing you can do is keep your productivity up, even if you have to trick the software into thinking you’re doing work while you step out to do something else. “It probably looks better to have your inbox open while you’re in another room reading a book than it does to be on Facebook or Twitter,” Vanderkam notes. 

But the best way to stay productive, she says, is to plan out your days every day. Ask yourself: What tasks do I need to tackle today? When do I have the most energy to tackle those tasks? Plan to get the most difficult or energy-draining responsibilities out of the way whenever you find you have the most energy. Proactively plan breaks for your less-productive time (yes, you can take breaks even if your boss is checking in on you) and use those breaks wisely. Take that time to make lunch or head out to the drug store. Even plan a short break to check social media if you need to — this can keep you off of Facebook when you should be finishing a task.  

And for all of you bosses out there, how do you determine if your employees are actually doing what they’re supposed to? Monitoring programs really don’t seem like the answer when we have access to things like weekly check-ins via phone, and project management programs that can easily show us if deadlines are met and work is completed on time. During these stressful times, isn’t it better to treat your employees like real people who likely are struggling through this pandemic just like you are? We all need breaks to exercise, pick up groceries, share a kind word with our kids, and stay sane. After all, we’re only human.


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