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'Trust but verify' may boost employee productivity monitoring

For some firms, employee productivity monitoring tools are part of a trust-but-verify approach to the adoption of remote work, four-day workweeks and flexible hours.

The next frontier in employee scheduling may be even more flexible and shorter workweeks, spurred on by the COVID-19 pandemic. This may create opportunities for employee productivity monitoring software, as employers try to verify and understand how employees work.

In 2019, before the pandemic, Gartner found that 2% of firms were experimenting with some alternative time arrangement for employees. By the end of March 2022, a survey of 164 firms with $1 billion or more in revenue found that 15% of these firms were considering different work schedules. 

Employers are "trying to figure out how to break free from the 9 to 5, eight hours a day, five days a week," said Brian Kropp, chief of research in the Gartner HR practice.

For these firms, "the big question is are we just filling up 40 hours a week with unhelpful, unproductive stuff," Kropp said, or "are we having our employees focus on the stuff that matters?"

That's one of the questions Kasey Konkright, head of talent and human resources at apparel designer and manufacturer Fam Brands LCC, was trying to answer. The firm has some 60 factories worldwide, making clothes for its brands such as Marika, Ellie, Wildfox and Three Dots, and its licensed brands, including Gap, Eddie Bauer and Orvis. To help answer that question, the company deployed an employee productivity monitoring tool from ActivTrak in January as a pilot for one team. Eventually, the company rolled the tool out to its 500 corporate employees, many who continue to work from home. 

One thing that employee productivity monitoring data helped Konkright validate was that "people who work from home are more productive." 

Remote work productivity

Without the employee productivity data for remote workers, the company would have started "pushing people to come back to the office," Konkright said. Instead, the data led the firm to expand its work-from-home program, and for the first time in the Fam's history, "we're actively hiring people from other states to work from home." 

Konkright said the company isn't considering something less than a 40-hour week because of the demands of the industry. But the employee monitoring tool "supports the notion that our employees are adults, and we trust them to do what they need to do." That means giving employees the flexibility to adjust their work schedules around family needs. Employee retention has increased since Fam deployed the tool, he said. 

In a pilot for the employee productivity monitoring tool, Konkright wanted to discover what was creating a bottleneck for employees in an order management function around its supply chain. 

[Employee productivity monitoring] supports the notion that our employees are adults, and we trust them to do what they need to do.
Kasey KonkrightHead of talent and human resources, Fam Brands

"We didn't think they weren't working," Konkright said. They found that order management employees were working more than 12 hours a day and that some employees were spending too much time in Excel to finish specific tasks, some of which relied on manual processes that could be automated. 

But the broader realization was "we had to add headcount to the team," Konkright said. The experience with the order management team became a selling point for a broader rollout, he said. The company also found that too much time was spent in meetings that could be run more efficiently. In sum, it showed employees that "we can do right by you," he said.

The employee productivity monitoring tool used by Fam Brands helped cement remote and flexible work. But some employers are looking at restructuring the workweek itself.

Four-day and other workweeks

According to Gartner's Kropp, employers considering alternative work schedules are looking at the four-day, 32-hour workweek. Others are considering offering plans to reduce pay and hours, such as 80% pay for 80% time, with no changes in benefits. He said there's consideration to split shifts that enable an employee to work a 12-hour day followed by a four-hour day. 

Some executives fear that reducing hours in the workweek will equate to cutting output, Kropp said. "But what that's assuming is that all 40 hours you are working are equally productive, which is just not true," he said. 

Kropp said there is a lot of activity among HR software vendors on productivity issues. 

"One the realities of having more remote and flexible work," Kropp said, "is that the approach that a lot of companies are taking is kind of trust, but verify."

Among employers that have reduced the workweek is Blackthorn.io Inc., a New York-based developer of processing payment, event management and other apps for the Salesforce platform. The company employs about 100. 

A few months ago, Blackthorn transitioned to a four-day week, Monday through Thursday, nine hours a day, with no change in pay. For employees who work directly with customers, it implemented a rotational schedule to cover all five days, said Chris Federspiel, co-founder and CEO. 

To improve the week's efficiency, the firm put less emphasis on meetings and more on written communications.

"People tend to use many words at meetings rather than just keeping it concise by writing," Federspiel said. 

Federspiel doesn't see a need for employee monitoring tools and said existing tools, such as story points in software development, activities in sales and product deadlines, provide similar data. 

"We're a culture of getting your work done rather than monitoring," Federspiel said. "After two to three months, it's clear who isn't pulling their weight."

While his employees like the four-day week, Federspiel said what matters most is the ability to work remotely. The company is entirely remote. "Our team members love, first, being remote, second, the four-day" week, he said. 

Awareness of time

But for companies that want more granular productivity data, they can seek out tools such as ActivTrak, which takes activity from an employee's computer and automatically categorizes it as productive and unproductive work. Its classification system knows that specific applications "tend to be productive applications," such as Outlook, Excel and Teams, said Gabriela Mauch, vice president of ActivTrak's Productivity Lab, its research arm. 

Unproductive applications can include social media, but Mauch said the system allows managers to decide that the marketing team, for instance, may use Facebook. 

Employees have a personal dashboard in the ActivTrak tool showing their overall screen time by the hour. There are three broad categories: focused time or working on a single task; multitasking time, which means multiple tasks executed in a short period; and collaboration time, such as time spent in meetings, chats and emails.

ActivTrak dashboard
Employees using ActivTrak's Personal Insights Dashboard shows three broad categories of work: focused or meaning working without interruption on a single task or project; collaboration or time spent in messaging and meetings; and multitasking or shifting from one task to another.

 Mauch said one of ActivTrak's goals is to help identify disruptions to an employee's workday.

The awareness of time management can also lead to minor organizational reforms, such as restructuring meetings to make them more productive, as well as consolidating or eliminating some meetings, Mauch said. It can also empower employees to speak up and voice concerns about whether a particular meeting is necessary.

But it may also lead to major organizational reforms, such as adopting a shorter workweek. Based on internal research, Prodoscore Inc. found that many employees do not work a uniformly productive workweek and are most productive Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, said David Powell, president of the employee visibility and productivity software vendor.

Considering the finding, should companies "fight that, or do we embrace that?" Powell said. 

The 40-hour workweek is "ripe for disruption," he said.

Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.

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