When To be Suspicious About Work-From-Home Employees (or Not)

By David Morrow - September 08, 2022

When To be Suspicious About Work-From-Home Employees (or Not)

Perhaps someone doesn’t answer a Slack message as quickly as they should, or they have long hours blocked on their calendar. Maybe someone doesn’t seem motivated during team meetings or they are slow to complete work. 

While research has shown that overall, productivity has actually increased as a result of the work-from-home movement, managers know all too well what it’s like to be suspicious that someone is taking advantage of their new work arrangement.

Most employees are thankful to say goodbye to commuting and work a little extra to keep their newfound freedom, but some employees do just the opposite. Away from the watchful eye of their manager, the likelihood that people create more risk is causing many corporate leaders concern. Good leaders understand what signs point to suspicious behavior, and which signs are simply a product of the new work-from-home norm.

New Patterns, Not Necessarily Bad Patterns

I often talk to corporate leaders who are feeling the strain of allowing the majority of their employees to work remotely. They used to be able to take a look at their employees’ computer monitors as they walked down the hall to make sure people were on task, or get a read on someone’s mood while chatting in the lunchroom. Without these daily interactions, knowing when an employee has become a risk to the company can be difficult. 

The first thing to do is to start understanding how working from home creates new behaviors that are not necessarily bad news for managers:

  • Unusual work hours: In the past, someone coming into the office late at night or on a weekend could signal that they wanted to access files they weren’t supposed to or do something else sneaking. Today, it’s completely normal that people work early in the morning or after dinner just because it suits their lifestyle better.
  • Chunks of idle time: People leave their computers for a host of reasons. Some people might sign off after school gets out to tend to their family. Others might stack up in-person meetings and be gone all day as they meet with clients. It’s important to understand why there’s idle time and make sure that people are either making it up later or that they are actually doing work even when they aren’t at their desk.
  • Working from other devices: The freedom that people have to work from anywhere is particularly clear to companies that track which device their employees are using. It’s more common than ever for people to answer Slack and email on their mobile phone, or to use their own laptop. This doesn’t mean they are a threat, just that they’re doing what’s convenient.

In all of these cases, the issue isn’t the new behavior itself, but a need for more information. When managers lack a clear picture of what people are doing at home it can be hard to know when someone is productive. They might just be using a different approach than when they were in the office or they might be engaged in detrimental activity. Gaining more visibility through new processes, such as regular check ins or more clearly labeled calendar notifications can help. Companies should also explore policies and technologies that can require logins, or monitor and ensure security across devices, networks and all hours of the day to accommodate the new way of working.

When to Worry

What worries managers more than what issues they can spot are those that are hidden from view. Someone might be at their computer all day, but actually be watching movies, or moonlighting for a competitor. People apply for new jobs from their office computer, steal data, and even run side businesses, all out of view in the comfort of their own homes.

If policies and technologies are in place to monitor employees, then managers have a window into what’s actually going on. 

Typically, problems fall into a few categories: 

  • Low productivity: When managers find that people are on their computers shopping or scrolling through Instagram instead of working, they aren’t getting their money’s worth. 
  • Work-conflict: Whether someone is writing a post for their personal blog or interviewing with a competitor, companies have a case to raise if people are using work time and work property for activities that are not work-related.
  • Corporate threats: A worst case scenario is when employees are stealing from the company, committing fraud or otherwise creating risk for the organization. A 2021 study found that 57% of organizations feel that insider incidents have become more common since 2020.

All of these issues need to be addressed head-on so that companies can have sustainable work-from-home organizations.  Implementing sneaky monitoring may actually cause lower morale and higher turnover than being up-front about the risks that need to be dealt with.

If employees realize that they have been given a privilege to work from home, then they will be more understanding about the need to monitor their activity. One study found that employees are actually happier to have technology do the monitoring, as it’s perceived to be more objective then a manager. Best to implement policies and technologies with employees in mind to create a happier, healthier workforce and a more productive organization.

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