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Productivity paranoia and time theft

The Financial Express logo The Financial Express 03-02-2023 guest
Employees do make personal calls and texts and look through social media for short periods of time while at the office. (IE) © Provided by The Financial Express Employees do make personal calls and texts and look through social media for short periods of time while at the office. (IE)

By Atanu Biswas

I recently finished reading Worth It, a 2020 book by Dan Price, founder and CEO of Gravity Payments, a credit card processing company. It’s interesting to note that in 2015, Dan Price instituted a $70,000 minimum wage for his company’s 120 employees and reduced his own salary from $1.1 million to $70,000 to pay for it. The rest of the narrative tells the tale of a novel corporate experiment that earned Dan Price the nickname “Robin Hood”.

A unique kind of employer-employee connection is induced in Price’s book. On the other hand, in a recent development, British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal ordered an accountant, Karlee Besse, to pay her former employer, Reach CPA Inc., about $1,500 as a reimbursement after tracking software revealed she engaged in “time theft” while working from home (WFH). This has been seen as shattering the employer-employee relationship in the remote work era.

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The culture of WFH and hybrid jobs was intensified by the pandemic, changing the employer-employee relationship, which undoubtedly needs to be reinterpreted. For example, there have been allegations of “moonlighting” recently. Many IT companies set out to figure out which of their employees were pursuing side jobs and whether those jobs directly conflicted with their primary jobs. As per reports, companies for background checks were hired to check for dual jobs or moonlighting. Naturally, tracking software may grow in popularity during the next few years.

Nearly 85% of managers were worried they couldn’t tell if employees were getting enough done, while 87% of workers said their productivity was just fine, according to a survey on corporate attitudes by Microsoft. The new phrase “productivity paranoia,” coined by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, describes managers’ worries about unproductive employees.

The “productivity paranoia” might get different sorts of manifestations in the new normal setup of today’s remote work culture. Additionally, this might lead to snooping. Besse, a remote worker in the Canadian “time theft” case, filed a claim against Reach for unpaid wages and severance pay after being fired in March 2022. In order to better manage client files, Besse’s employee, Reach, installed a time-tracking programme called “TimeCamp” on her laptop. This programme not only recorded when and for how long a client document or file was open on an employee’s computer, but it also assisted the employer in differentiating between work and non-work activities. TimeCamp would track how long a user spent accessing a streaming service, such as Disney Plus or Netflix, on her laptop, and Reach would label the activity as personal. Besse claimed to have printed out documents to work on, but the company countered that printing is likewise tracked by the programme and that very few printed documents have actually been registered. With the help of the evidence from TimeCamp, the tribunal upheld Besse’s dismissal and also ordered her to reimburse Reach for the 50.76 hours it determined she “did not appear to have been spent on work-related tasks” yet was compensated for.

This Canadian example cannot be dismissed as an outlier because the tribunal’s ruling could cause a deluge. Accepting the TimeCamp evidence suggests that the court is allowing for AI-assisted monitoring and evidence in one direction. This decision also triggers a rethinking of the remote work culture by highlighting a worrying tendency that is emerging from some remote workplaces.

“Time theft in the employment context is viewed as a very serious form of misconduct,” the Civil Resolution Tribunal’s decision, dated January 11, read. That is one angle of the problem. But, from a different perspective, employers should think about whether “time spent” is a good indicator of job performance. “Yes,” some might respond. In the US, if an employee habitually arrives 15 minutes late and makes the average salary, that is about $2,000 in lost productivity annually. I think it is still an archaic idea to judge a worker’s performance purely on whether or not they can do eight hours of work in a day or anything comparable.

Employees do make personal calls and texts and look through social media for short periods of time while at the office, for example. The burden of proof should fall on the employer to show that time theft in remote work is fundamentally different. One enjoys refreshments, an extended lunch break, and conversation with coworkers while at work in the office. Often, employees go outside their authorized usage by shopping online, paying personal bills, or reading the news. Other types of breaks are possible while at home, such as attending to a visiting mailman.

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Thus, the Canadian example is a crazy precedent. Monitoring employees while working from home, possibly through software that continuously tracks a worker’s computer activity, could “backfire” by eroding trust. The company could ultimately lose considerably more than $1,500! One of the best ways to build trust is by being trustworthy and having that trust reciprocated. It makes other employees feel quite uncomfortable when they are aware that they are also being tracked.

The trust has, however, often been murky. Employers would continue to suffer from “productivity paranoia,” especially during this difficult time when there have been massive global layoffs.

However, it is important for both employers and employees to tread a fine line between trust, monitoring, and micromanaging. In this post-Covid world where WFH has become the new standard, the line needs to be more distinct. Policing for “time theft” and even legal victories may not always be “Worth It”.

The writer is Professor of statistics, Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata

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