No slacking allowed: Companies keep careful eye on work-from-home productivity during COVID-19

Heads up, Canadians working from home. If you thought your new arrangement was a licence to slack off, think again. The boom in people doing their jobs off site during the COVID-19 lockdown has led to rising interest in services that help employers remotely monitor their workers' productivity.

Law doesn't prohibit remote monitoring of workers, as long as they're informed

A selfie taken by Leanne McNaughton, an Enbridge employee in Chatham, Ont., who is working from home. (Enbridge)

Heads up, Canadians who are working from home. If you thought your new arrangement was a licence to slack off, or make a little less effort — think again.

The boom in people doing their jobs off site during the COVID-19 lockdown has led to rising interest in services that help employers remotely monitor their workers' productivity.

ActivTrak, Teramind, Hubstaff and Time Doctor are some of the U.S.-based companies that provide employee monitoring software.

Bosses can use a "dashboard" that shows data about individual workers, including their screen time, the activity of their computer mouse, shots of what's on an employee's screen at any given time, and in some cases, even their physical location via GPS.

Austin, Texas-based ActivTrak says the company has seen a spike in customer inquiries. A spokesperson said there's been a 35 per cent increase in demand for information and product demos from Canada since the pandemic began but wouldn't cite specific sales figures.

The Hubstaff dashboard shows employers what their workers are accomplishing on a daily basis. (Hubstaff)

Miami-based Teramind said "customer interest" globally is three times normal levels but didn't have Canadian figures available. The company said it's unable to release sales figures or identify customers, citing non-disclosure agreements. 

And in Indianapolis, Hubstaff co-founder Dave Nevogt said his company's website has had 7,000 visitors from Canada since the start of March, according to Google Analytics — a 15 per cent increase from before the pandemic.

Nevogt said 550 Canadian firms have signed up for a free trial in that time, and 79 have already purchased Hubstaff software. 

Productivity measures changing

Demand remains high from new customers all over the world, Nevogt said.

"In a normal month, we might have 5,000 trials starting; now, we're around 15,000," he said.

Dave Nevogt, co-founder of Hubstaff in Indianapolis, says his firm has received plenty of interest from Canadian companies that want to better monitor their workers’ productivity while working at home. (Hubstaff)

"If you're managing projects and you're used to managing somebody by looking over their shoulder and that person is right there, and then all of the sudden they're not, how do you get that control in place?" 

Companies pay between $7 and $10 US per month for each employee on the system.

We need to be holding people accountable.- Jackson Fregeau, COO, Revenue Accelerator

Revenue Accelerator of Vancouver is a company that uses Hubstaff's services. Its team of 25 employees helps other companies, mostly in the technology field, find and develop sales leads.

The company's chief operating officer, Jackson Fregeau, says Revenue Accelerator signed with Hubstaff close to a year ago but has found it to be even more valuable during the pandemic.

"We had half of our company working remotely before this, and since COVID, now everybody is remote," he said. "We need to be holding people accountable. We need to know what people are working on. And I think it helps people stay more focused as well."

Fregeau said the software provides an alternate way to measure productivity.

"We used to measure their performance by results — the number of meetings booked — but now, potential customers aren't responding the way they used to, and we have to measure against the time the team is putting in, even if it's not producing a result."

Workers limited in what they can reject

Andrew Monkhouse, an employment lawyer in Toronto, works with small- and medium-sized businesses and often represents employees in disputes.

"Unionized workers have more control over the privacy aspects of their workplaces," he said. "The non-unionized workplace has less control, because generally, the employer is able to institute policies that they think are appropriate, and employees have limited ability to refuse reasonable practices."

An image from the Twitter feed of Enbridge Gas in Ontario. The company currently has two-thirds of its staff working from home. (Enbridge)

He says there are no Canadian laws against an employer instituting such a system, as long as employees are fully informed about how the system works. But there's also no law requiring employees to agree to having their work monitored at home.

"If the employee says no, however, what happens then?" Monkhouse said. "Because the employer is allowed to say, 'We're going to let you go.' Then that person would need to be paid compensation, which could be as low as three months salary."

Not everyone needs monitoring

Some employers, however, say that their experience during the COVID-19 crisis has shown that working from home can be a great success — even without a monitoring service such as Hubstaff or Teramind.

"We're very proud of how our teams have adjusted," said Tanya Mushynski, vice-president of customer care for the Ontario division of Enbridge Gas.

Tanya Mushynski, vice-president of customer care for the Ontario division of Enbridge Gas, says the company’s employees are working hard at home. (Enbridge)

Of the company's 3,600 employees in Ontario, close to 2,400 are working from home. While maintenance, emergency response and construction teams continue to work in the field, those with desk jobs in billing, regulatory affairs, engineering and other departments have shifted to their homes.

"In terms of the contact centre employees, we have a number of metrics that we track on the work they do, the number of calls they handle, etc.," said Mushynski. "So, we can very easily say they are as productive as they have been previously."

Would Enbridge consider more closely monitoring employees? "I don't know that we've seen a need for it," said Mushynski. "Productivity is good."

'Breaking all the rules'

But not everyone is a fan of pandemic productivity. Even longtime proponents of work-from-home arrangements say current conditions are far from ideal.

A number of factors are important for optimum performance at home, says Nicholas Bloom, a professor at Stanford University in California whose research has shown productivity can improve when workers aren't in the office. Child care is needed, along with a separate room for working. And the decision to work at home should be a choice.

Nicholas Bloom, a senior fellow at the Stanford Institute for Economic Research Policy, believes the work from home trend will grow after the pandemic lockdown ends. (Stanford Institute)

"We're breaking all the rules with COVID," he said, working from a bedroom in his California home.

"I had a call recently with one of my co-workers, and I could see her toothbrush in the background in the corner. She was making the call from her bathroom."

Bloom has had his own mishaps, as well. One of his four children burst into the room where he was on a conference call, shouting their nickname for him, Doodoo.

"The kids thing is really hard," he said.

He says trying to work with young children around is a "productivity disaster." But longer term, with proper conditions, he sees the trend rising.

"The stigma of working at home — sometimes called shirking from home — will be gone, post-COVID," he said. "That has disappeared in just two months."

Can help with billing

Dave Nevogt of Hubstaff says most of his clients are business owners with between 10 and 100 employees, and they're not always focused on snooping.

"It's typically those customers that bill by the hour, and they need the justification of how many hours are actually being worked, so how many hours spent on Client A versus Client B, for invoicing," he said.

He sees the work-from-home trend exploding in the years ahead. "I think the world has become aware that when you work from home, you can be productive, and the workforce is going to want that," he said.

"And the owner is more likely to say I can save costs on my office building with fewer employees there."

Jeff Provencal, 33, works from home in Accra, Ghana, last month. Companies around the world have had to adjust to co-ordinating and monitoring work from a distance. (Francis Kokoroko/Reuters)

Bank of Montreal has announced it intends to allow 30 to 80 per cent of its 45,000 staff members to consider a blend of work from home and time in the office once the lockdown ends. 

Twitter said Tuesday it will allow its employees to keep working from home indefinitely, and Waterloo, Ont.-based OpenText Corp., the largest software company in Canada, said it was permanently closing half of its offices and would have some staff continue to work from home after the lockdown lifts.

Lawyer Andrew Monkhouse says there could be tough choices ahead, though, at workplaces that do opt for increased observation of work habits. "Some people would prefer to be monitored than face a layoff," he said.

Even Stanford's Bloom says he sees an upside to monitoring services for some employees.

"On the one hand, it feels spooky and creepy that we're being monitored, but oddly enough, it may be liberating," he said. "If you want to be home and your boss is quite skeptical that you're goofing off, you may want to show that you're doing well."


Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.

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