Cultural differences, work ethic and remote monitoring

As I travel through the world, and also work in different places in the world, I have found the concept of work ethic interesting. Thereby also the laws which governs what a company can do to monitor an employee. Is the employees’ distrust and missing work ethic a result of feeling mistrusted by the employer and the laws – or is the law in place, and monitoring necessary, because of the work ethic? Which one is first, the hen or the egg? And is it possible to change?

In many countries, employers are monitoring their employees and their computer screens. Watching everything the employee does, in real time and also recording, their screen. I realise there is a huge difference in culture from various parts of the world. In Scandinavia, there is a saying and a kind of rule that we live by: “freedom with responsibility”. It basically means that you can do as you want as long as you live up to the responsibility of what is expected from you.

I once heard a project manager tell us about an experience in Singapore. He had a team of Scandinavian engineers with him for starting up a project that would be continued by the Singapore branch. They all met for a kick-off and had a great time. The next day, the teams started doing their part of the presentation. After a couple of days the Singaporean project manager started to worry that the Scandinavians left after 8 hours each day, sometimes even after 3pmon a Friday (though, staying later another day maybe.) He told the Scandinavian team leader that he should really look after his employees, he was afraid they were not working properly! The Scandinavian said he had full faith in them that there was no need to worry. The Singaporean continued to walk around his employees, looking over their shoulders and making sure they were always on time.

Time passed and it was show-time. It turned out that the Nordic team had delivered what was expected and surpassed the expectations, even better than the Singaporean team had. The local project manager simply could not understand this as he had seen the Scandinavians “slacking off” as he called it, taking breaks and seeming, to him, “irresponsible”. The Scandinavian team leader had to explain that in our culture, we have this “freedom with responsibility” principle. He told his employers what they needed to accomplish by the end of this time period and they were all expected to reach this target. If one day wasn’t productive, that’s ok, just be more productive the next. At the end of the time period, it’s the results that matter.

I really enjoy this freedom – that my supervisors KNOW I will do my work, and they don’t need to supervise me. If I need help, I will come to them and ask. However, we do expect our bosses to touch base every now and then and check in with us, and we do of course report to a manager periodically. In contrast, I have Indian colleagues and they seem to be afraid of saying they don’t understand – they always say “Yes” to me, although I see in their actions that they didn’t in fact understand me.

This Scandinavian concept is apparently somewhat unique, although most of the Nordic countries is the same, I believe. Laxmi Akkaraju, vice president of Evry, a large computer consulting company, talks about this concept and how it confuses many other countries: UPDATE; NHO has sadly removed the video. I have contacted them to ask whether they will put it up again as I thought it was excellent. I hope they will.

Personally, I could never work for a company doing surveillance. I would take it as an insult to my work ethics and person! If I feel like reading a newspaper for half an hour in the middle of the workday because my mind was too focused on a problem and needed a breather, I want to do that. However, I might also sit half an hour longer than I get paid, to do the work I missed previously in the day. It evens out, I “pay” my employer back their time. Or, I work that half an hour tomorrow when I know I have lots of work to do after a meeting. My own values and beliefs of work ethics have to match the company’s in order for me to be a happy worker and develop in my role. (Sandoff and Widell, 2009, pp.201, Chan, Gee and Steiner, 2000, pp.47-52)

I discussed this with a colleague from United Arab Emirates. He argued that research was done by Dataquest and ID, finding that approximately 22 million U.S. employees waste one of more hours on the Internet each day. That approximately makes it a cost of $63 billion a year, and he argues that employers have the right to make sure they are getting the work they pay their people to perform.

For me, there is so much wrong with that picture. Why would you distrust your employees in the first case? Would the employees not be unhappy being monitored this way? Aren’t happy workers, better workers? (They are – see research links below.) And most importantly: what is the employer paying for – your brain and thereby your solutions, or just your time? I can sit typing slowly all day to make the monitoring happy, but if I instead use my subconcious to think and therefore come up with a much better idea, I believe my boss would be far happier.

What if that 1 hour of surfing made the employee’s days so much better that they in turn worked a lot harder? Or what if they came across something on Facebook that got them inspired to do their work slightly differently, providing new solutions? What benefits the companies the most – workers that work like busy bees all the time or happy, relaxed somewhat-privately surfing workers? My culture and my belief says the latter. The point is, those $63 billion a year, I think that 1 hour of surfing the web will benefit the company MORE than that in revenue.

For me, the monitoring style of thinking is old fashioned, non-psychological considering what modern research has taught us about how the brain works, how humans feel and behave. That 1 hour of surfing is not wasted. I think it gives input from the outside world, while your company’s challenges murmur at the back of your head, making you potentially see new solutions. It makes you relax and get back to work more invigorated. A happy worker is better for business income. (Chan, Gee and Steiner, 2000, pp.47-52) Company morale and feeling that you belong to a company, is important too.

Consider this: what about smokers – should we calculate their smoking breaks and maybe give the non-smokers that time for surfing, instead? Toilet breaks? Or what if I bring my own smartphone to work – I could surf on that phone, not making my employer see what I’m doing on the remote monitoring screen. At Google and many other more “modern thinking” companies, they have large toys, lego’s and bean bags for relaxing for their employees. They realise that by having a “time out”, the brain gets a bit relaxed and you come up with fresher, better ideas.

The owner of Tower Paddle Boards, 1 year ago, decided to cut his worker’s workday to 5 hours. They leave around lunchtime. He only asked one favour in return: we need to do the same amount of work – can we? One year later, they were on the Inc. 5000 list of America’s fastest growing companies. The same workers stayed, but now he has even more happy people, motivated people and the business now attracts talented people who wants this way of working: short, hard and great. (Aarstol, 2016) So, the company results were not the same – it was even better after the change to 5 hours, same pay for the employees. How is that possible then, if time spent working = quality work/cost? It’s not such a simple mathematical equasion. (Of course this way of working might not suit everyone, but it would certainly suit a lot of people.)

So then you can ask – that one hour of surfing the web.. maybe it doesn’t make a difference to the bottom line, or if it does, maybe it gives a positive result? There’s no guarantee that if you took that one hour away from the workers, that the hour your removed would actually be worth anything. We are not robots, but much more complicated sacks of opinions, feelings and psychology. Maybe that 1 hour, at the end of the day, was when your worker sat sluggishly and nurtured his/her cup of coffee, waiting to go home, because their brain had basically shut off.

My point is that if monitoring is done due to increase performance, there are much more important factors than what an employee is doing on his/her computer. If the person is not pulling his/her share of the company workload, HR should talk to the person and take action for improving the results of the employee. It’s not the surfing that’s the problem – it’s the worker and his/her attitude.

I am hoping that one day, I will be working REALLY hard for only 5 hours (no private surfing!) and be happy together with a successful company Smile

As I mention, this is very cultural and it is what we are used to. I imagine it could be hard for either way of working, to adapt to the other way. Could you ever imagine these concepts in your country – the “freedom with responsibility” or the 5 hour workday? Could you see yourself working with such loose rules, would you thrive, or do you feel like you need rules and “scares” such as surveillance, to do your best? (Chan, Gee and Steiner, 2000, pp.47-52)



Aarstol, S. (2016) What happened when I moved my company to a 5-hour workday [Online] Available from: (Accessed: 30.11.2016).

Chan, K. C., Gee, M. V. and Steiner, T. L. (2000) ‘Employee Happiness and Corporate Financial Performance’, Financial Practice and Education, 10 (2), pp.47-52.

Sandoff, M. and Widell, G. (2009) ‘Freedom or docility at work – is there a choice?’, International Journal of Sociology & Social Policy, 29 (5), pp.201.

Image:, user “OpenClipart-Vectors / 27454”. CC0 Lincence, public domain.