Remote work time theft is a topic being mentioned frequently during the past two years. Time theft laws are part of criminal laws in the United States and this problem affects about 75% of American businesses, according to the APA (American Payroll Association). Some companies claim that they’re worried about people not working at all. Consequently, employees in the US are being accused of time theft – a crime, occurring when someone is paid for work that wasn’t done. In other words, those are situations when employees take longer lunch breaks or use work hours for personal activities. Should “stealing time” really be a concern these days or is it rather a relic, that connects “working” with physical presence only?
Who’s “stealing” whose time?
I was recently invited as a guest speaker to a virtual remote work event. During its Q&A session, I was asked to share my opinion about time theft among remote workers in the US. Some managers claimed that they were sure about their employees taking breaks at home, not responding to e-mails right away or even leaving the house to pick up their kids from school. Trying to put myself in their shoes, I shared the following example.
Imagine you have two employees with the exact same scope of responsibilities. They both work from the office – clocking in and out at the very same hour. One finishes their tasks quicker and keeps clicking randomly on the screen to kill time, whereas the latter can’t keep up and needs to stay at work longer. So, for most managers this is an “OK” situation as both employees are at work, “working” and sitting in front of their laptops. But when we dig deeper into this situation, let’s try to respond to a simple question. Is it actually sensible to ask the faster worker to remain in the office all the time? Does this kind of physical presence add any value to our business? Or… maybe we are actually punishing an amazing employee with our expectations to remain present despite their spectacular productivity?
It’s natural that some people may get things done quicker than others when they work remotely. Some may need to take breaks during the day as they are single parents. Should we accuse them of time theft if we catch them preparing a meal during the day? Also, do we have the right to get suspicious if they call us when they walk their dog?
Presence vs. alleged time theft
I’ve read numerous publications about time theft and remote working – trust me on that. What really worries me is that many employers consider the following situations as potential time theft features:
- Using social media, personal email, taking phone calls, and sending text messages during working hours
- Having too many personal conversations instead of discussing business-related matters
- Not responding to Slack messages quickly even if the status is set as “available”
- Switching off video and being on mute during virtual meetings
- Leaving the house during the day rather than remaining available for full 8 hours
- Being active on gaming platforms that potentially means playing video games during work hours
This list goes on…and on… But several things remain common for all these examples: lack of mutual trust, time-tracking rather than progress tracking and employee absence assumptions. For some reason we’re still tending to treat knowledge-workers according to patterns that were primarily established for the manufacturing industry hundreds of years ago. Back then, blue-collar employees were the majority of workforce and physical presence in front of assembly lines meant that people were working. During breaks, workers could leave the workspace for 15 or 30 minutes. However, they needed to get back on time as their presence was crucial to continue the automated production process.
Now, how can we possibly use the above mentioned presence indicators for different types of work? Imagine two graphic designers that are working on a very similar project. The first one keeps working precisely eight hours a day for three weeks and delivers a poor end-result. The latter however, takes several breaks during the day but shares a spectacular final outcome within a week. Which employee deserves appraisal?
Should we punish people who work wisely?
Start with changing your mindset
Begin with assessing actual productivity rather than introducing time-tracking software. Following employees’ mouse moves will tell you absolutely nothing about their work. Biometric clock-in systems aren’t a good idea either. Focus on setting goals so that everyone knows what to do and by when. Schedule regular check-ins to receive updates and track progress. Don’t try to mirror quick in-office chats virtually and expect an immediate response. People may be engaged in deep work at that very moment.
Something to work out first are mutual cooperations rules. What is it that we expect as managers? Do we know the needs of our team? Are we familiar with our common goals? Have we established progress tracking? How do we want to design communication – should it be just synchronous or asynchronous as well? Do we expect others to switch on cameras? Well… many of these things remain unsaid and that’s why we’re facing so much bias around remote work time theft.
I personally believe that accusations of time theft that rely just on physical presence are a relic. This is mainly because labor laws have initially introduced hourly working limits to protect employees from exhaustion during the industrial revolution. Nowadays, we’re trying to turn the very same regulations against them without taking into account that our reality requires a totally different approach towards the notion of work.