How To Help Home-Based Workers Maintain Focus And Prevent Time Theft

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With many organizations allowing employees to work from home during the pandemic, helping employees stay focused and preventing time theft has likely become a new priority for many business owners. Employees have more leeway working from home than in a structured office environment, so how can managers help their teams stay motivated and avoid the temptation of taking unapproved time off?

For many, working from home is completely new, and staying motivated to work while surrounded by distractions is an unfamiliar and unexpected challenge. I’ve been an entrepreneur for most of my adult life, and motivating myself to work has always been easy. However, some employees might be struggling to find their motivation right now during this stressful and overwhelming time of uncertainty.

For this reason, while trusting your team is important, I believe some newly minted work-from-home employees might benefit from additional guidance and oversight to stay focused and productive. I have a few recommendations for getting started:

1. Develop clear expectations.

Setting clear expectations can help employees know what working from home should look like. Start with your employee handbook: Consider updating it to include guidelines for home-based workers that delineate acceptable and unacceptable habits. I suggest defining time theft so employees understand it, how it can hurt the company and co-workers, and what the consequences are for stealing time.

Also, detailing ways employees can protect themselves from falling into bad habits can be helpful. For instance, a good way to avoid distractions at home is to close unused programs during work, such as browsers, music apps and games. In my experience, though outlining these steps won’t result in a perfect performance, it can help those who choose to take the advice.

2. Give your team access to important resources.

Companies can also help employees stay focused by providing workspace setup guidance and materials. If your workers are continuously distracted searching for supplies, then the likelihood of distractions goes up.

Keep employees stocked with paper, pens, batteries and anything else they might need. These are things you might not normally think to purchase for home-based workers, but it could be time to rethink that approach. Purchasing supplies for people working from home, even if it’s an expensive item like a chair, headset or laptop, could mean the difference between solid and spotty workdays.

3. Embrace videoconferencing and chat tools.

I’ve found that purchasing videoconferencing licenses is another way to help maintain focus while encouraging employees to remain in close contact with one another. These types of applications are seeing skyrocketing usage during the pandemic because they work wonders by helping teams stay connected.

You might also find instant messenger programs to be helpful for home-based workers because they enable employees to remain in contact, as well as provide you with a way to connect with employees who are struggling to maintain focus and motivation.

4. Look for signs of disengaged workers.

In my experience, when employees are struggling to focus or are committing time theft, there are usually warning signs. Learning to recognize these signs will produce a more complete picture of work habits.

For instance, most employers would likely suspect that a worker is disengaged if they fail to answer calls. But this isn’t necessarily proof, so you’ll want to make sure you’re also considering: Is your employee consistently late with assignments? Are co-workers, vendors or clients letting you know they are frustrated with the employee? Has the employee’s quality of work suffered since they began working from home? Are they frequently unavailable compared to other workers?

These are all questions that can help you identify who might be struggling right now or committing time theft. One bad sign by itself isn’t helpful in assessing the habits of your home-based workers, but several taken together paint a more complete picture.

5. Use available tools to track performance.

You might have tools available to check directly on home-based workers. If you feel your employee isn’t emailing, calling or chatting with the same frequency as their peers, consider logging into your dashboards for those services to see what information is available. Often, it’s obvious if employees are not working. 

Note that it’s a good practice, in principle, to check with your local labor board to ensure you’re not violating any privacy laws investigating employee behavior. Generally, however, work-related emails, phones and chats are not off-limits to employers. In fact, these records are often saved by companies to protect themselves in legal disputes. You do need to be careful and know the acceptable boundaries, however, because certain communications, such as private phone calls, are protected.

Time-tracking software is another way you can track work habits. (A number of companies, including mine, offer this type of software for remote employees.) In my experience with clients, getting remote workers to punch a clock is a great tool for accountability.

6. Trust your instincts.

If home-based workers are struggling to focus, it might not be obvious. This is why it’s important to learn to recognize the warning signs and trust your managerial instincts.

Initially, you might not have more than a gut feeling something is wrong. Fear not, for you’re not out of options. If you think there’s something awry, start paying attention to details. Make notes of issues so you have documentation and a history of the employee’s conduct. Check logs, and talk with co-workers and clients. In the end, those who are misusing their time will be easier to identify.

Firing is easy, but some employers would rather keep workers when problems are fixable. Discussing metrics is a great way to broach the topic. You don’t need to come down like a ton of bricks, but letting your employee know their activity is logged and providing one or two examples is usually enough to drive the point home. With luck, that’ll be enough to alter their behavior in a positive way.

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