Remote Monitoring Software: Godsend or Work of the Devil?

Last Updated Jul 26, 2010 6:45 AM EDT

remote monitoring software can help your team or destroy trust. How should you use it?If there's one question that all managers of remote teams have at some point, it's: "exactly what are my people up to at this moment?". Maybe you trust them implicitly and it's the idle workings of a diligent management brain. Maybe it's the evil suspicions of your micro-managing dark side. Either way, wouldn't it be nice to know?

There are numerous software packages out there that allow you to see what's going on with your team members. Some, like WorkExaminer or EBlaster simply let you constantly monitor what they're up to with a permanent record of everything they do on their computer while you're not there. Others, like the new software Peerdrum that is much less intrusive but still displays your team's screens as they work, track time and manage multiple projects. Workers can also stop the screensharing for periods of time so their break time is truly their own. There are two reactions when people hear about this software: "Good, I am paying these people to work not do Facebook all day" or "Oh my gosh, that's Big Brother and there's no way I could work like that". In fact, there are compelling arguments both ways.

  • If you're paying people by the hour you want to make sure you're getting value. Part of the problem with this, of course, is that you're paying remote workers by the hour rather than by the project or completed task (which is a totally different discussion). According to Tony Gialluca of Peerdrum, the advantage of monitoring software cuts both ways. "As a manager, you need peace of mind that they're being billed appropriately. For remote employees, it's a great way to demonstrate your ability to be left alone and still get the work done- to show your employer you're trustworthy".
  • You can't help if you don't know what's going on. This is the double-edged sword of remote leadership. On one hand It allows micromanagers to rationalize constantly snooping and checking up. On the other, it's true that people don't always pipe up when they have a challenge or their work slows down. Some times the "hands-off" manager needs to be proactive about recognizing there's a problem and she has to step in.
  • Verification is part of the employment agreement. Trust is destroyed in many ways but built in only a few. Delivering on promised performance, whether you're the employer or or the worker is important and objective standards are important. Are you , in fact, working the hours you claim you are on the projects you say you're working on? It's important to note that even when, as a boss you implicitly trust your people, other stakeholders (particularly IT and Finance) may not have the same faith in their diligence. Sometimes you have to have these verification tools in place to meet their need for security and allow your people to telecommute or work remotely. It's not a perfect tradeoff but sometimes it's necessary.
  • How and what you'll monitor needs to be spelled out. Just checking on people without their knowledge or permission, then blindsiding them with your findings falls squarely on the "evil" side of the ledger. Peerdrum has some standards it likes to set:" managers shouldn't try to see an employee's every move. It's intended to be mutually beneficial to administrators and team members," Tony says. Team members should always know what is being tracked, how it's being tracked and why. (If you're paying by the hour, then you need to know that hour is being worked. If they're using the company network, you're responsible for what goes through it. If you're paying for results, and the results are there then back off.).
Working remotely requires a new dynamic of trust from both worker and manager. How you use tools like remote computer monitoring speaks to the kind of company culture you want to build, the kind of employees you want to be part of your team and the kinds of managers you'll create.

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photo by flickr user ckaroli CC 2.0