How to Tell if Your Employees Are Actually Working

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HR Insights for ProfessionalsThe latest thought leadership for HR pros

Monday, March 22, 2021

It's important to trust your employees with a level of autonomy, but what do you do if you suspect they're slacking off?

Article 8 Minutes

Every manager wants to feel as though their employees can be trusted, but what do you do if you need to check they're not slacking off? Autonomy can be an important part of a professional's personal development, but this shouldn't come at the expense of productivity or the company's bottom line.

Why monitor employee performance?

Tracking employee performance is crucial if you’re aiming to ensure productivity remains high and engagement is maintained among your staff. While you may feel that keeping close tabs on employees shows a lack of trust, it's important to always bear in mind the impact of a drop-off in workforce performance and the associated costs this can lead to.

Monitoring employees help ensure the business is always operating at peak efficiency and also gives a range of other benefits, such as:

  • Improving employee productivity
  • Defining inefficient business processes
  • Identifying common employee distractions

When you monitor employee behavior, you can assess the things that might hinder them from achieving their full potential. It's not a matter of 'Big Brother is watching you', rather the way in which people are working and being supported can be properly assessed.

So, how do you tell if your employees are actually working?

1. Encourage mobile managers

Managers should be able to move from desk to desk in their team without making anyone feel nervous. If people are hurrying to look busy or hide what they're doing on their computer, it's a good sign that they're not working to their full potential.

Of course, you don't want your managers to have to be breathing down the necks of everyone on their team, but it can pay to have them take a little wander around every once in a while.

2. Communicate with homeworkers

The rise of remote working presents a considerable problem for companies; how do you know what people are doing each day? If you're worried about the hours they're putting in, try using communication tools like Slack to reach out to them. If they take a long time to reply, it suggests that they aren't paying as much attention as they should be.

Tools like Basecamp can also be used to keep everyone up to date on what is happening and how projects are progressing wherever they are working from. This is a great way of keeping homeworkers in the loop and helping to make them feel part of the team.

3. Use technology

There's a variety of software that can be used to track computer activity. This can give you real-time information about what your employees are seeing and listening to at any time.  Although this may be one of the most effective ways of tracking behavior, it could lead to some negative feelings if not handled properly.

Employee tracking software such as keystroke loggers, keyword monitoring or instant messaging logging could all be viewed as invasive forms of keeping track of employee behavior. Therefore, it's essential to have staff buy-in into the use of these measures. No one likes to feel as though they're not trusted, even the dedicated employees, and introducing something without their knowledge is unlikely to be welcome.

The legal constraints of what employers are able to spot and track can also differ depending on which country or state your company is based in, so make sure you know all the facts before you start monitoring employees.

4. Time management

Time management software can be another productive way of seeing what your employees are accomplishing during their day. This can be in the form of specialist software like Liquid Planner or something more low-key like a spreadsheet to track hours/revenue completed each day.

Because this focuses on employees self-reporting, it should make them more conscious of what they’re doing each day and also allow them to compare themselves to their peers, who will also be tracking their work.

5. Look at performance

Tracking performance can be a much more ethical way of seeing which employees are working hard and identify those who are being left behind. Of course, this may not be an accurate indication of who’s slacking off and who isn't, but it can help you focus your efforts for offering support.

Most companies aren't actually that bothered about what their employees do during working hours, as long as they hit their targets and bring in the revenue. Adopting this attitude can lead to a better working relationship between staff and employers and could even lead to higher retention levels.

6. Allow anonymous tip-offs

Making it possible for employees to anonymously report colleagues who aren't pulling their weight or who are falling short of the company standard can be an effective way of ensuring people work to their full potential. Even just having something like this in place can discourage professionals from slacking off during office hours. However, you'll need to be careful that people aren't being reported because of personal feelings or personality conflicts, so it's a good idea to have someone to vet tip-offs.

If you want a less-intense alternative, consider having an appraisal scheme that asks other employees what they think of X's performance, attitude and work ethic. This can be a good way of understanding what each professional is contributing to the team, without any of the secrecy of an anonymous tip-off system.

The cost of poor employee engagement

Issues surrounding employee engagement can have far-reaching consequences for any business. Therefore, it's important to be in regular contact with staff members to assess their levels of engagement and to offer support to improve this where needed.

Ultimately, a lack of engagement can hurt you in a number of ways, ranging from reduced productivity, an increase in absence, missed deadlines or poor sales results, through to an increase in customer complaints and an associated hit to company reputation.

Research from Gallup shows that a disengaged employee can cost a business between $3,400 to $10,000 per year in lost productivity. In addition, low levels of engagement can lead to increased employee turnover, meaning businesses need to spend more to replace staff as they leave.

Overall, Gallup estimates that the cost to the US economy from employee disengagement could be as much as $350 billion each year. Keeping employees engaged and enthusiastic about their roles is therefore highly beneficial to both individual firms and the country as a whole.

What to do when employees are underperforming

It can be a tricky situation when you have staff who aren’t performing. Having identified those who may not be pulling their weight means action needs to be taken to ensure this doesn’t become an endemic problem.

Speed is key when it comes to successfully addressing issues of underperformance. Here are some steps you should go through to assess and get on top of any problems:

  • Be clear on the issues: Be prepared for any meeting to discuss underperformance with the facts at hand about why any action is necessary. It's not enough to offer a vague 'you aren't doing a good job'. There needs to be specific information on how an employee is falling short.
  • Understand pressures (both internal and external): It's not just at-work factors that can hinder employee performance. As such, it's important to have a full picture of a person's situation before pursuing any form of action.
  • Address underlying causes: It may be that issues outside of a person's control are causing them to underperform, such as inefficient processes. Having a clear understanding of the wider causes of underperformance is also a must.
  • Create goals together: Employee buy-in is crucial to success, so make sure any goals that are set or changes that need to be made have been worked out in partnership with the individual who will need to meet/undertake them.
  • Offer training and support: Make sure all avenues are pursued in terms of additional training or support provided by the business to get a person up to the level of performance required. This could be things like providing internal or external courses, mentoring programs or taking a close look at day-to-day working practices.
  • Track progress closely: Managers need to be more involved with an underperforming staff member at every stage, as they need to ensure that progress is being made. Regular meetings to discuss how individuals are getting to grips with their responsibilities should be set up. Meanwhile, setting achievable targets can help create key milestones for all parties to work towards.

If an employee fails to improve after all of this support has been offered, it may be time to consider disciplinary action. However, when pursuing this course, remember you must continue to offer ongoing support to get the worker to an acceptable level of performance within the company.

Ultimately, not all cases will result in an employee improving or re-engaging with your business. In many cases, a successful resolution can be reached, which will benefit both the business and the employee in the long run.

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