Why trust and control issues stop remote workers from doing their jobs properly

Young woman sitting at table looking at her laptop and drinking coffee. Female using laptop at home.
It’s important for remote workers to feel trusted. Photo: Getty

The ability to work from home has been one of the silver linings of lockdown for many people. Instead of heading to the office with a travel mug of lukewarm coffee, we’ve been commuting from our beds to our kitchens — away from airless offices, loud coworkers and dictatorial bosses.

But as the pandemic continues and people carry on working remotely, some employers are tightening the reins on workers. Since March, an increasing number of businesses have turned to surveillance software like ActivTrak, WorkSmart and DeskTime to keep tabs on their staff.

Billed as a way of monitoring productivity among remote workers, these apps silently track our every move. They tell our managers when we’ve logged on, how many minutes we have been “active” and how much we’ve done. We can’t even step away from our laptops to go to the toilet without our breaks being recorded.

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The uncomfortable reality is that many employers feel entitled to track their workers’ activity to make sure they aren’t slacking off. But not only is intimidating people into being productive pretty dystopian, it sends out a seriously damaging message of distrust to employees.

“Trust is essential for building strong and successful relationships, both in and out of the workplace. Trust allows people to make safe assumptions about each other, to rely on one another and to be open with each other,” says business psychologist Stuart Duff, head of development at business psychology consultancy Pearn Kandola.

“Most importantly, trust is a source of motivation to act in the right way for another person. If we trust colleagues, we are significantly more likely to reach out and help them, going above and beyond the requirements of our role. Where trust is high in organisations, individuals report greater levels of personal well-being, job satisfaction and engagement.”

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Trust is essential in all businesses, but it’s particularly important for remote workers to feel trusted. Managers need to know people are productive and committed to achieving what is expected of them, without being able to see them regularly or catch up with them in the way they might in a busy office environment. And in turn, employees should be able to get on with their work without additional stress or anxiety of being monitored.

“Using tracking and surveillance in remote teams will provide a leader and their organisation with basic work data, but will undermine any type of trust between employees and their leader,” Duff says. “Using surveillance implies that there is zero trust in the working relationship and therefore an employee will have no incentive to build trust. They will simply perform the tasks they have been given.”

Although this may work for extremely transactional roles, it’s likely to have a negative impact on the quality of team-working, levels of creativity and decision-making. Employers may see surveillance software as a safety measure to make sure workers are doing what they should be doing, research shows a culture of distrust actually undermines productivity.

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Invasively monitoring people’s homes is problematic, too. Denying workers the dignity of being trusted to work autonomously in their private space can negatively impact mental health and wellbeing. It’s also infantilising for employees to feel like they’re being “checked up” on, which can lead to resentment and people disengaging from work.

Dennis Relojo-Howell, founder of psychology website Psychreg, adds that trust is a two-way street. Employees need to be trustworthy, but employers need to be reliable in managing their teams.

“As the founder of a web portal, I managed a team of people who are located in different countries. I don't constantly check up on them because I know that this behaviour could convey a lack of trust,” he says. “Research has shown that trust increases employee loyalty and can also decrease their levels of stress.”

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Essentially, monitoring software enables employers to feel in control — but it comes at a high price. “Control implies that there is one right way to do something, whereas trust implies a belief in another person's ability to think and act in a way that could generate different outcomes that are just as, if not more, effective,” says Duff.

“By imposing control, a leader may feel short-term reassurance that everything will turn out in the way they expect, but in the long-term will create wariness in relationships that will reduce openness, honesty and spontaneity — vital ingredients in developing trust.”