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Are Your Remote Workers Faking Being Active Online?

Jordan Bishop
Jordan Bishop
Business News Daily Staff
Updated Oct 07, 2022

As remote work becomes the norm, online communication tools are especially important. But are your employees faking their online activity?

  • Remote work makes it harder for managers and supervisors to keep track of what their team is up to when they’re working from home.
  • There are several red flags you can look out for to know if your employees are faking working from home, like decreased performance and always seeming to be available on all channels.
  • If you suspect that an employee is faking being active, start by giving them the benefit of a doubt, but pay closer attention to other red flags. Using employee monitoring software can help, but you should use it ethically.
  • This article is for business owners, managers and HR professionals who work with remote employees.

The pandemic has had a profound effect on how we work. It forced many businesses to close their doors and left millions unemployed. However, one silver lining was the rise of remote work. With mandatory lockdowns, many employees had no choice but to work from home, which was a challenge for some but a blessing for those who successfully made the transition.

While remote work had been on the rise for years, the pandemic made it mainstream. According to Global Workplace Analytics, the number of people working from home had already increased by 216% between 2005 and 2019. So the pandemic accelerated an existing trend, as businesses were forced to adopt new ways of working to survive.

Furthermore, apart from the pandemic, technological advancements like high-speed internet, cloud-based applications, and collaboration tools also made working from home easier than ever to adopt.

But all of these changes also brought about new challenges for companies. While some companies were thriving, others were not, and not being able to see what their employees were up to made them suspicious that the cause could be that remote employees were only pretending to work. This continues to be a problem even now that the pandemic is finally subsiding. Here are some key red flags that tell you an employee may be trying to cheat the remote work system.

Advantages of remote work for businesses

There are plenty of reasons employees love working remotely, but the benefits are even greater for businesses. Employee satisfaction and retention improve when employees work from home, and businesses save on recruiting, onboarding, training, office space and related costs. In addition, remote work gives companies access to a much larger and more diverse talent pool, which can be a real boon for businesses. A study done by Global Workplace Analytics found that telecommuting can save businesses in the U.S., on average, around $11,000 per employee per year if the employee does only half of their work from a remote location. The study also found that employees who work from home are more productive, take fewer sick days and are more likely to stay with a company for longer.

So, what does all this mean for business owners?

It means that remote work is a win-win for businesses and employees alike. Companies save money and increase productivity, while employees enjoy the flexibility and freedom of working remotely. But some employees don’t appreciate these benefits, and managers can easily take notice.

Key TakeawayKey takeaway: On the whole, remote workers are more productive, but some employees may try to take advantage of flexible work arrangements by faking being active.

Are your employees faking being active online?

It’s a sad reality for business owners, but many employees are actually faking being active online. A survey done by Preply, a language tutoring platform, found that of 1,200 participants in the U.S., 44% of remote workers and 33% of bosses have faked being active on a work chat app. Another study by Qatalog and GitLab showed that remote workers wasted, on average, 67 minutes online each day due to “digital presenteeism” pressures, such as being immediately responsive on a chat platform while more productive tasks linger. 

Remote workers fake being active online for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Wanting to appear more productive
  • Hiding their lack of actual activity
  • Trying to bill for more hours than they actually work

Whatever the reason, it’s important to be aware of this problem so you can address it effectively.

Signs your employees are faking online activity

Based on the statistics above, you can assume that at least some of your employees either have faked being active online in the past or are actively faking it regularly. Here are a few signs that give them away:

1. They take more time to complete tasks than usual.

If you notice that a worker takes an unusually long time to complete a task, it’s a telltale sign that they may be faking working. Remote work is usually associated with better productivity, not worse, so if an employee is unusually slow, it could be a red flag. They could be taking breaks to check social media, answer personal emails or take care of other personal business. 

2. They seem to work only when you’re monitoring.

If your employees seem to show results only when you’re looking over their shoulder, but that productivity disappears as soon as you turn your head, it’s a sign that they might be faking being active online when you’re not monitoring. If they know you’re going to check up on them, they’ll be more likely to accomplish their responsibilities more quickly. However, when you’re not around, they can slack off, and the same work will take more time.

3. They’re always available on chat platforms.

This could seem counterintuitive, but if your employees are always available on Slack, Teams or Asana, they’re probably not focusing on their work (unless being available 24/7 is part of their job, of course). I know it’s nice to get a quick reply from an employee, but if they always immediately answer your messages and are always “online,” they might just be sitting on a hammock in front of their devices but not actually working. They could be browsing the internet, checking social media or even taking a nap while having an “active” status on your messaging platform.

4. Their productivity in the workplace is different than at home.

Historically, most businesses worked with in-person teams they could oversee and manage effectively while being on the clock. Later, many were forced to rearrange their workforce because of the pandemic, letting some go and keeping others as remote workers. In the latter case, managers have the benefit of knowing how productive each worker was when working in person. This allows them to compare that performance with the performance when working from home.

If you notice that an employee who was always on the ball when they were working in the office is now sluggish while working at home, it could be a clear sign they’re taking advantage of remote work. This is an even bigger red flag in the case of hybrid workers, who split their time between the office and home, since managers can regularly compare their in-person performance to their productivity at home. If there’s a big gap, it could be a sign that employees are slacking off when they’re working remotely.

5. They turned into perfectionists when they started working remotely.

A typical scenario of remote work is when an employee takes twice or thrice as long to finish a task, arguing that they weren’t satisfied with the result. Justifying low productivity based on a bunch of insignificant details indicates that an employee is either not working smartly or not working their full shift. If your employees are coming across as perfectionists, it could be that they’re just pretending so you can allocate more time for an assignment that could be finished quickly. Try to explain the bigger picture to employees who are obsessing over perfection. If their productivity doesn’t improve or the quality of their work suffers, it could be a sign that they need more training or are just not managing their time effectively.

These signs are red flags that you must look into. But how do you handle a situation where you suspect a remote employee isn’t pulling their weight?

What to do when you notice a red flag

If you, as an employer, are becoming suspicious that remote workers are slacking, start by considering if you are getting suspicious just because of a gut feeling or if there’s evidence to support your suspicion.

1. Give them the benefit of the doubt, and look for more evidence before confronting an unproductive employee.

To get to the bottom of the situation, and if you haven’t started doing it already, start by timing how long it takes your remote employees to complete a task from start to finish. If it’s significantly longer than it should be, they’re probably not working as hard as they claim. Of course, this isn’t definitive proof that they’re slacking, but it’s a good indicator that something may be up.

Also, when you’re trying to estimate how long a task should take, do consider how complex the task is and how much experience the employee has. Also, make sure to allocate enough time for regular breaks and trips to the bathroom. So, if a task should take three hours without taking any breaks, add another 30% of that time to account for those unavoidable interruptions.

Additionally, if the task is something a worker should be able to complete in a short time based on your estimates, but they’re taking much longer, don’t jump to conclusions right away. Try to help them work more efficiently by using other tools, setting clear short-term goals and managing their time better.

If this doesn’t work and instead of becoming more productive, the worker becomes defensive, then they’re likely not working the full number of hours.

2. Start tracking what your workers do on a weekly basis.

Nobody likes being micromanaged, but you’ll need to start taking stronger measures if push comes to shove. For example, you could start tracking the activity of employees using different time-tracking tools. One example is RescueTime, which tracks how much time is spent on different websites and applications. This can provide valuable insight into how your employees are using their time, highlighting if employees are spending too much time on nonwork activities. Another tool you can use for time tracking is Toggl, which has some of the same features as RescueTime.

3. Use employee monitoring software ethically and transparently.

Apart from the time-tracking tools mentioned above, there are also a few different “tattleware” tools that you can use to track your employees’ activity. These employee monitoring software tools are designed to track and report on what users do on a computer or device, and they became wildly popular with the pandemic.

Tattleware typically consists of two components: a client program installed on your employee’s device and a server program that collects and stores the data reported by the client program. The data collected by tattleware can include anything from periodic screenshots to live screen view and playback, as well as other usage data, like the websites visited by a user, mouse and keyboard tracking, and the applications used.

From a business perspective, employee monitoring software is the perfect solution to some of the few cons of working with remote and hybrid teams. First, it eliminates the need to ask yourself whether or not your employees are slacking when working from home, because you can literally see what they’re doing. Second, it makes it easier for technical teams to provide remote support to employees who are struggling with their computers at home. Lastly, it makes it easier to monitor company data and prevent breaches that could compromise your operation.

It’s important to note, though, that this type of solution is something your employees may not feel comfortable with if it requires installing the client on their personal computers at home. However, this can easily be avoided if you provide a company computer or device for them to work on.

Furthermore, it’s also essential that you are fully transparent with your remote/hybrid team about using employee tracking software, even if you provided the hardware. Even though the best employee monitoring software solutions can work in both stealth and visible mode, employing covert surveillance is unethical and likely to crush morale if discovered.

Pros and cons of employee monitoring software

There are both advantages and disadvantages to using employee monitoring software to track the online activity of remote workers. Here, we look at some of the pros and cons to help you determine whether employee monitoring software is right for your business.

Pro: You can verify that employees are actually working.

On the plus side, employee monitoring software can help you ensure your employees are actually working when they say they are. Monitored devices show which users are active and can even help supervisors track activity by sensing screenshots and logging keystrokes.

Most monitoring software also allows employers to see which websites employees are visiting, what they are doing on those websites and how much time they are spending on them. If your employees are spending all day scrolling on social media, it will become clear quickly. The same goes for software: If your employees are spending hours of company time gaming, employee monitoring software will flag it.

Pro: You can reduce security risks. 

Employee monitoring software can help you identify any potential security risks. Some of these risks may simply be the result of poor home office security, such as if your employee is accessing sensitive company data from an unsecured network. 

Additionally, the best employee monitoring software can recognize deliberate attempts to undermine security in several ways, such as by monitoring external devices used to upload or download files or software. If one of your employees is trying to steal confidential information or introduce malware into your network, employee monitoring software can alert you.

Did you know?Did you know?: Our best pick for employee monitoring software for security threat protection can be found in our Teramind review.

Pro: You can track productivity by employee and task.

Employee monitoring software is useful for tracking which employees are working on which tasks and how much time each takes them. This information can be used to identify which employees are top performers and which employees may need more training or supervision. 

It also makes it easy to estimate the cost of each task by monitoring who worked on it, how long it took them and what resources they needed to accomplish it. This is helpful when determining which tasks are taking longer or costing more than expected, tipping employers and managers off to the ones that may need to be redesigned. 

Con: Over-monitoring risks hurting employee morale.

Using employee monitoring software also comes with some disadvantages. For example, employees may feel like they are being monitored too closely and may become resentful. Flagging employee morale – or worse, increased employee turnover – could harm productivity and send the company into a tailspin. 

Always be transparent about using employee monitoring software and the capabilities it provides. Consider not deploying some of the more invasive tools and explaining to employees specifically how the software will be used.

Con: Some monitoring software may be inaccurate.

Employee monitoring software reports can be inaccurate and may not capture all the time an employee spends working on a task. Before purchasing employee monitoring software, read through customer reviews and question representatives about the accuracy of the reporting tools. Our top choice for data analytics and reporting can be found in our review of ActivTrak.

Con: New software requires implementation and training.

Employers may need to invest time and resources in implementing any employee monitoring software they buy. Usually, this software involves downloading a client on the devices to be monitored, as well as a central administrative hub for monitoring users. More advanced software may require assisted implementation from the vendor, which could mean additional costs.

In addition, the reporting in these tools can be intense, so training HR employees on how to use the software is a must. Training takes time and money above and beyond the cost of the software, so be sure the expense is worthwhile and that you have buy-in from key personnel.

TipTip: If you want to be sure you’re choosing employee monitoring software that provides accurate data and checks all the other boxes you need for your business, read our comprehensive guide.

In the age of remote work, trust but verify

The rise of remote work was already underway before the pandemic hit; COVID-19 only accelerated the trend. While businesses were forced to close their physical locations, many turned to remote work as the only way to keep their operations running. However, not all employees are equally productive when working from home. Some may even be faking it, logging in to their work accounts and appearing to be active online while actually doing very little.

These days, employers have the option to use tattleware or time-tracking software to see how their employees are really spending their time while working remotely. Such tools do help employers identify which employees are slacking off and which are going above and beyond. However, time tracking and active monitoring can also have negative repercussions on employee-employer relations. If employees feel like they are being constantly monitored, it can lead to feelings of mistrust and resentment. Therefore, it’s crucial that employers avoid jumping to conclusions and handle these situations with care if they want to retain their most valuable asset: their talent.

Image Credit: BartekSzewczyk / Getty Images
Jordan Bishop
Jordan Bishop
Business News Daily Staff