Time Theft and Productivity in the Age of COVID-19AUTHOR: Noah Rue
There’s no doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic has been challenging for all businesses and their employees. One of the most prevalent adjustments many have had to make is in respect to remote operations. For those that have previously relied upon office spaces, it can be a bit of a bumpy ride handling unfamiliar practices and a shift in team dynamics. Some teams have had to learn from scratch how to collaborate successfully in a remote setting.
For members of leadership, one issue that has arisen is the potential for time theft. This is where employees bill for services or draw salaries for hours that they haven’t spent explicitly on work duties. The physical office space has the benefit of employees being supervised, their productivity visible, and actions accountable. Following the movement to remote operations, some management and business owners question whether their employees can be trusted to be as productive as they should be, or if they’re simply wasting resources by relaxing in their home environment.
Why the Concern?
Resources for any business are finite and valuable. Time is just as important of an asset as finances and materials, and it’s only natural that business leaders are protective over how it is used. But why is it such an issue in respect of employees that may be working from home?
For the most part, this comes down to opportunity. Time theft is not something that is generally considered to be a maliciously planned action. Rather, theft is often in response to situations in which the employee might feel as though their employer is cutting costs at workers’ expense. For business leaders, there may seem like there are more opportunities for employees to steal time in remote circumstances because they aren’t supervised. This concern may be exacerbated for many businesses as of lately with the reduction of hours, or threat of layoffs, the perceived threat of time theft.
Essentially, this is a trust and confidence issue, and one that has arisen amidst COVID-19’s perfect storm of financial and operational uncertainty. Everybody involved in this scenario understands and appreciates how vigilant we must be over finances and resources. However, those business leaders that may not have prioritized building trust through the development of employee relationships will see this situation as a potential venue for further losses. They then tend to overreach in protecting themselves and their business against a reality that may not even exist.
In many circumstances, the potential for time theft isn’t as pronounced as leadership may think. Indeed, the opposite is more likely to be true. A recent study found that employees were more productive when working from home — often taking fewer breaks and working more days each week. The same study highlighted that in-office employees found supervision to be more of a distraction to their work than their remote, less-supervised counterparts. The truth is, although it may be an uncomfortable transition for a lot of companies to embrace remote operations, it can be beneficial for business. It reduces overheads, improves productivity, and can result in employees who are more satisfied with these flexible arrangements.
In which case, if there is an element of time leakage, it’s important to consider whether the culprit is something other than outright theft. Yes, employees who work from home seem to statistically work harder, but this could also present an element of risk for both workers and employees. Burnout is an unfortunate reality of remote working, and one that can result in time leakage, and even absenteeism over time. Rather than leaping to conclusions that this is time theft, leaders should utilize empathy more often with their team members. Frequently take time to talk to them about what aspects of this new approach they’re finding challenging. Listen to what they feel isn’t working for them, and where they are struggling. This can give insight into the causes behind time leakage and form stronger bonds with workers at the same time.
Taking a solutions-minded approach is certainly more beneficial than micromanaging. When leaders choose to focus on additional and invasive supervision of remote employees, this only serves to highlight a lack of trust, which can inflame the situation. However, when everyone takes the time to discuss issues openly, you can work together to create, implement, and assess solutions. These might include adopting routines suited to the remote environment or exploring other leadership-based solutions.
Prevention and Support
While it might not be the primary cause of leakage for all businesses, there’s no doubt that time theft is still an issue. We can’t assume that all employees will operate from home in a way that exemplifies the productivity standards that we would like. At the same time, taking an approach of micromanagement and overbearing actions can damage relationships in a way that may worsen the risks. Instead, there are leadership tactics that can prevent these problems from arising:
- Open Communication. A culture of dialogue is beneficial for all businesses, but it is especially important in remote circumstances. When employees feel detached from their team, they can start to feel isolated and unsupported. Management should be implementing tools and protocols that give employees the ability to regularly communicate with each other and their supervisors. There should also be a structure that both provides regularly scheduled calls, as well as “open hours” at other times should employees need it.
- Formalize Policies. While remote working gains from flexibility, it does not necessarily benefit from a lack of clarity. Employees need to understand exactly what is expected of them when working from home. This can be easily established with a workplace policy document that specifies the standards of an office — including health and safety standards, behavioral requirements, and acceptable uses of their time. Make it clear what constitutes time theft, and the importance of talking openly with management about how time is used.
- Morale Building. Employees that feel happy and supported in their teams tend to be less likely to indulge in unproductive behavior. As such, leadership needs to explore ways in which they can ensure morale in remote spaces. Make certain that achievements are still highlighted to the entire team. Create channels on communication apps that employees can socialize with while at work; posting funny memes or random thoughts. Hold regular remote activities such as quizzes, or just casual hangouts.
Remote operations are still a new and uncomfortable way of working for some businesses. However, while it may seem as though time theft is a risk, this doesn’t mean to say it should be met with overbearing or draconian supervision methods. Listen to what employees feel their challenges are, create solutions together, and cultivate a workplace that can truly benefit from what can be a productive method of operations.