Are Your Remote Employees Just Pretending to Work?

Are WFH Employees Just Pretending to Work

There have been a lot of growing pains when it comes to managing a remote workforce during COVID-19. The sudden lack of visibility has made it difficult for some managers to understand how productive employees are while working from home.

A staggering 38% of managers in a Harvard Business Review study felt that working remotely makes employees less productive. On the other hand, a Global Workplace Analytics survey of employees that were forced to work from home during COVID-19 has found that 68% of them feel that they are very successful working from home.

So, are remote employees truly more productive than their in-office counterparts? Or are they simply pretending to be busy at work? Let’s take a look.

Are Remote Workers Slacking Off?

man a little too relaxed in an office, his feet are on the desk

One concern about the productivity of remote workers is that they will pretend to go to work every day while secretly spending time on personal projects, writing messages to their friends, looking for other jobs, doing household chores, taking naps, running errands, and other personal priorities. 

On one hand, the research indicates that employees are happier and more productive while working from home. On the other, there has been no shortage of those taking advantage of the lack of visibility to eschew hard work in favor of distractions.

  1. 57% of WFH employees admitted to binge-watching TV during work hours (Fast Company, 2020)
  2. 61.6% admit that social media is a huge distraction while working at home. (SellCell, 2020)
  3. 43.2% admit to visiting porn and adult websites on their company computer during work hours. (SellCell)
  4. 33.5% admit to gaming while on the clock. (SellCell)

Naturally, these counterproductive work behaviors have led to an erosion of trust between employees and managers. While in-office employees are just as guilty of slacking off (we’ll touch on that later), it’s no surprise that the adoption of remote employee monitoring software has skyrocketed during the pandemic—employers need to know that their equipment and time is truly being used in the best interest of the company!


FREE TRIAL: BrowseReporter Employee Monitoring Software

“The employees find the reports to be an extremely helpful self-analysis tool, and use the reports to analyze and reconfigure priorities!”

Ready to get started with employee monitoring? Reach out to the CurrentWare team for a demo of BrowseReporter, CurrentWare’s employee and computer monitoring software.

How Employees Look Busy Working from Home

Using Mouse Jigglers to Appear Active

To ensure that remote employees are working during agreed-upon work hours companies will use idle time monitoring software or monitor user activity bubbles in team chat apps to see when employees are actively using their mouse or keyboard. 

So, how are these remote employees looking busy while working from home? They’re deploying tools that input fake mouse or keyboard inputs. 

A mouse jiggler—also known as a mouse mover—is a hardware or software tool that generates mouse movements. These tools come in many forms including custom scripts, dedicated dongles, and even DIY solutions such as leaving an optical mouse running on top of a computer fan or even on top of a smartphone playing videos with repeating line patterns.

Appearing Busy With Fake Meetings

Image: Three people having a video conference together. Two are together in the same room, the other is a smiling man seen on a laptop screen.

Another way that people have faked being active while working from home is by running a Microsoft Teams meeting with themselves so that they are flagged as being in a meeting, all the while they’re spending time away from their desk.

Web Surfing in Incognito/Private Browsing Modes

 Microsoft Edge InPrivate Browsing window

If an employee is suspected of putting off their jobs in favor of browsing the web an employer may decide to review their internet browsing history for evidence of wrong-doing.

Unfortunately, without a dedicated internet monitoring tool an employee can hide their past browsing history by using private browsing modes such as Incognito Mode On Google Chrome, Private Browsing On Mozilla Firefox, and InPrivate Browsing Window On Internet Explorer.

With a dedicated monitoring tool supervisors will have access to employee browsing history even if the employee uses private browsing or deletes their browsing history.


Want advanced insights into employee app usage and web browsing? Get started today with a free trial of BrowseReporter, CurrentWare’s remote employee monitoring software.

Scheduling Messages & Emails

gmail schedule send option

To give the impression that they are starting work early and ending late employees will schedule messages to be automatically sent at predetermined times, regardless of when they are actually at their desk. This method gives off the impression that they are active and writing messages in real-time. 

Being Highly Responsive to Messages

close up of hands typing on computer keyboard

To help sell the illusion of productivity a remote worker can be dutifully responsive to every email, phone call, and team chat message—all the while doing whatever they desire. 

Even if no work is getting done, there is no shortage of activities a remote worker can do to keep themselves entertained while they sit at their desk. By being present at their desks they can spend the day playing browser-based games, web surfing, or watching Netflix.

That’s not even mentioning the fact that with cell phone apps they don’t even need to be at their desk for this to work!

How Employees With an Office Job Pretend to Do Work

While the above tactics also apply to employees with an office job, there are a few methods that are uniquely suited for pretending to work in an office space where one’s boss can see their screen. 

Disguise Reddit as Something Else

Productive or unproductive: Reddit in the workplace

While Reddit isn’t inherently unproductive, it’s no secret that it’s an easy way to kill a few hours. To help make what’s on their screen more inconspicuous to their supervisor, employees can visit websites that make Reddit look like common office tools. 

  • MsOutlookit makes Reddit look like an older version of Microsoft Outlook
  • HardlyWork.in make it look like they’re working on a spreadsheet rather than browsing Facebook or Twitter

Pretending to Work With Fake Code

Person typing on a computer

Hacker Typer is a quaint little tool that makes programmers look like they’re working hard… to non-programmers, at least. With this tool they can type whatever they want and it will make code appear on their screen.

It’s not all mindless code, either; they can upload their own text file that will slowly generate as they type, allowing them to produce code that makes sense in the context of their work. 

Sorry, Can’t Work—Windows is Updating!

Fake Windows 10 installation screen 1% loaded

For busy IT pros, waiting for software to finish installing can be one of the few moments of relief they get—apparently they may even get to eat lunch!

The responsibilities of an IT pro can be insurmountable, with more work coming in than their team can reasonably handle. This stress may tempt some to use FakeUpdate.net to give the impression that their computer is updating.

Why Do Employees Pretend to Do Work? 

A woman in professional attire stares off-screen, distracted

Company Culture

Most people want to succeed in their careers and provide value to their employer, which means they generally work hard while at work. 

Unfortunately, in some company cultures genuine effort may be perceived as slacking off. This causes micromanagers to emphasize time spent looking busy at a desk over the actual output of their employees. 

Under these circumstances, employees are incentivized to pretend to be busy by spending every hour of their work day in meetings, typing away at their desk, and other stuff that’s not necessarily contributing to their value in the workplace.

Misusing Work Monitoring Tools

The adoption of remote employee monitoring software has skyrocketed during the pandemic. CurrentWare alone saw a 130% increase in queries for our computer monitoring software during Q1/Q2 2020. 

For many businesses, these tools have been essential for understanding how their remote employees spend their time during work hours. Beyond deterring time theft the data provided has made it easier to understand key work habits such as core working hours, software adoption rates, and adherence to company security policies.

Unfortunately without a thought-out strategy for monitoring employees, many businesses have allowed managers to misuse employee monitoring systems to micromanage how their employees work. 

Rather than using the data to make informed management decisions, some managers have subjected their remote workers to scrutiny over minor deviations in their perceived productivity.

Examples include

  • Reprimanding employees for taking brief breaks to browse the web, despite research showing it to increase productivity (so long as non-work internet browsing does not consume more than 12% of an employee’s work time.)
  • Placing too strong of an emphasis on input, rather than output.
  • Micromanaging any time spent away from the computer including bathroom breaks and work-adjacent tasks

This misuse of monitoring software is the result of managers emphasizing “butts-in-seats” as a KPI. This method of management hasn’t worked favorably for anyone in an office job, let alone for those working from home. 

Stress and Burnout

One reason that employees avoid work is that there’s simply too much of it. With the average person only being productive for three hours of the day, being assigned greater hours and a larger workload isn’t suddenly going to make them more productive.

With remote work further eroding the concept of work/life balance, many feel pressured to answer messages and shift their focus to work-related tasks well outside of standard work hours. While this can be great when coupled with flexible work schedules, it’s also potentially a fast road to burnout.

Chronic burnout leads to a slew of problems including counterproductive work behaviors, decreased workplace satisfaction, and poor mental health.

In a similar sense, if someone finishes their job early, and they are rewarded with more work to do, they become incentivized to never finish their work early. This leads to goldbricking, a phenomenon where someone intentionally does less work than they are capable of.

How to Motivate Employees to Work Productively

Man giving a presentation

There is a thin line between how to motivate employees to work productively and compelling them to simply look busy. This section will outline ways that managers can motivate their employees.

Use Monitoring Software Responsibly

Employee monitoring is an excellent tool for understanding how your workforce operates.

Unfortunately a history of overly-invasive deployments has caused serious concerns among employees, like:

Is my employer spying on me?

They’re just doing this to find an excuse to fire me

If they’re monitoring what I do at work, they obviously don’t trust me

This is not what you want your employees to feel. 

In this video I’m going to guide you through the best practices for monitoring employees so you can avoid these mistakes and concerns from your employees

Hello and welcome to the CurrentWare YouTube channel. 

My name is Neel Lukka and I am the managing director here at CurrentWare.

After watching this video you can learn more about this topic by reading our new white paper “Employee Monitoring: Best practices for balancing productivity, security and privacy”

You can find the link for that in the description below.

Before we start, I just want to give a quick disclaimer here. 

I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. These tips are for informational purposes only. If you want to use employee monitoring software in your company be sure to consult with a legal professional first.

Alright, let’s jump in

First up is the very best tip I can give you.

If you want to succeed, you have to let your employees know that they are being monitored.

Employees that do not know if they are being monitored, why they are being monitored, and how they are being monitored are more likely to have negative reactions to being monitored, 

such as

Having higher rates of stress and anxiety

Being less likely to accept being monitored

And, ironically, becoming less productive

That’s not to say that transparency is going to negate each and every concern that your employees may have.

But if you start with transparency from the very beginning you have a far better chance of proving to your employees that these tools aren’t being used to spy on them. 

By being transparent you’re also giving the chance to hear about their concerns from the start. This lets you work with them to make an employee monitoring strategy that is fair and minimally invasive.

Here are 4 transparency boosting tips:

Involve a representative sample of employees when you start planning your goals and the metrics you want to capture

Tell your employees what metrics are being captured, how they’ll be used, and what is being used to capture them

Have your staff read and sign policies that disclose your intended use of the employee monitoring software

and finally, give them access to their own data so they can see exactly what’s being captured. They can even use this data to manage their own productivity, which is a major bonus

The second tip I have for you is don’t use employee monitoring to micromanage

One of the reasons that monitoring can be perceived negatively is that it feels like it’s being used to punish employees. They worry that it’s the software equivalent of a micromanaging boss staring over their shoulder while they work, just waiting for them to slip up.

Some employers do monitor internet use to make sure employees aren’t getting carried away, but did you know that so-called “unproductive” internet browsing has actually been found to have a positive impact on productivity?

It’s true! But only if that browsing doesn’t take up more than 12% of their work time.

Employees feel far better about being monitored when they’re given the autonomy to self-manage first. Managers can step in if things are getting carried away or if their employees are visiting clearly inappropriate websites.

The third and final tip I have for you today is to not monitor more than you have to.

Think about it this way – if I told you that I wanted to make sure that employee’s weren’t visiting not safe for work websites, you’d think I was crazy for asking for a direct feed into their webcams. 

The bottom line is this: 

If you can meet your company’s goals with a less invasive method of monitoring, do it that way.

For example, if you want some backup for your acceptable use policies you can use internet monitoring software to see what sites are being visited. 

But there’s no need to track individual keystrokes

Or maybe you want to protect data from being stolen. You can monitor the flow of data without recording audio clips of private conversations

Finally, maybe you want to track the work habits of employees that are working remotely or from home. Give them a company-provided device rather than monitoring their personal computers

That’s it for now. 

If you want learn more, check out our new white paper “Employee Monitoring: Best practices for balancing productivity, security and privacy”

You can find the link for that in the description below.

If you’d like to try out employee monitoring in your company, visit CurrentWare.com/Download for a free trial of BrowseReporter, our computer monitoring software.

And as always stay tuned to our YouTube channel for more videos about employee monitoring, cyber security, and CurrentWare’s workforce management software.

Free White Paper

Best Practices for Monitoring Employees

In today's privacy-conscious world employers need to monitor employees in a way that is transparent, minimally invasive, and respectful of employee privacy.

Read this white paper to learn the best practices for monitoring employees in the workplace.

Monitor Remote & In-Office Employees Equally

Work monitoring software is an excellent tool for gaining insights into how time is spent during the work day. However, when misused these tools can exacerbate existing problems within the organization’s culture.

For example, if there is an inherent bias towards remote workers their employers may monitor their efforts more closely than they would their in-office counterparts. This makes what is supposed to be a business intelligence tool into morale-damaging “bossware”.

Instead, employers should monitor everybody equally and use the data to make informed management decisions for their entire workforce.

Avoid Using the Data to Micromanage

Avoid using the time that employees spend away from their computers or browsing the web as a standalone productivity metric. 

While anomalously large amounts of time spent away from the computer or browsing the web can be a sign of a disengaged employee, a few minutes here and there shouldn’t be a concern. 

In the case of idle time, they could be participating in work-adjacent tasks such as phone calls, deep thinking, or even grabbing a quick cup of coffee to help them stay alert and focused.

While you may think that web surfing is an issue, research from Brent Coker of the University of Melbourne has found this perspective to be wrong in some cases. According to Coker, so-called “cyberloafing” can have a positive impact on employee productivity; so long as the non-work internet browsing does not consume more than 12% of an employee’s work time.

“Short and unobtrusive breaks, such as a quick surf of the Internet, enables the mind to rest itself, leading to a higher total net concentration for a days’ work, and as a result, increased productivity.” 

Brent Coker, Lecturer of Marketing, University of Melbourne

Naturally, if an employee feels that they will be punished for their idle time they’ll be incentivized to give the impression that they are constantly active. They’ll become paranoid that their managers think that they aren’t actually working, even if they’re far more productive working from home.

Instead, check out these tips for evaluating the performance of WFH employees.

Set Clear Expectations—And Trust That They’ll Meet Them

If a manager assigns a task, they need to trust that it will get the attention that it deserves. This starts with building a team of good people, providing them with the tools they need to succeed, and demonstrating that they are trusted to perform well.

But if employees are not aware of what is expected of them, how can they know they are succeeding? Setting clear expectations and providing feedback helps employees and managers alike by providing a framework for the quality of work required.

So, Who’s More Productive: WFH or In-Office Employees?

Picture with text: How to Increase Productivity - CurrentWare. Photograph shows a hand demonstrating an upwards curve motion with an arrow following the index finger, simulating a graph

While no one research study is going to conclusively answer the question of “are remote workers more productive than in-office workers?”, several pieces of research have indicated that working remotely can provide significant benefits.

  • Of those who work remotely at least a few times per month, 77% reported greater productivity while working offsite; 30% said they accomplished more in less time and 24% said they accomplished more in the same amount of time.  (ConnectSolutions, 2015)
  • Nearly six out of 10 workers reported being more productive working from home than they expected to be (The Work From Home Outlook in 2022 and Beyond, 2021)
  • On the other hand, 64% of WFH employees said they sometimes take care of personal tasks during the workday; 13% said they always have something personal to get done while on the clock. (Quickbooks, 2019)

A key thing to remember is that “productivity” is not always easy to measure, and there are more things that business leaders need to consider to understand the full picture and answer the question for themselves. 

For example, a Stanford study found that remote working improved job satisfaction and reduced attrition rates by up to 50%. The cost savings alone from having happy and long-retained employees is certainly more productive than operating with a higher attrition rate. 

Learn More: Should Employees Work From Home After COVID-19? (Infographic)

Conclusion

Whether they’re working from home or in the office, employees that want to waste time are going to find ways to do it. Fortunately, as a whole remote workers are more productive and happier than their in-office counterparts.

Supervisors that are concerned about time theft can use the insights provided by remote employee monitoring software to verify that each person on their team is working as they expect. 

Companies that use monitoring software must be completely transparent about their intended use of the software and the safeguards that are in place to prevent misuse.


FREE TRIAL: BrowseReporter Employee Monitoring Software

“The employees find the reports to be an extremely helpful self-analysis tool, and use the reports to analyze and reconfigure priorities!”

Ready to get started with employee monitoring? Reach out to the CurrentWare team for a demo of BrowseReporter, CurrentWare’s employee and computer monitoring software.

Sai Kit Chu
Sai Kit Chu
Sai Kit Chu is a Product Manager with CurrentWare. He enjoys helping businesses improve their employee productivity & data loss prevention efforts through the deployment of the CurrentWare solutions.
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