Employers are spying on their staff with and without their knowledge and consent, and ranking them according to their assumed productivity levels. Previously the domain of blue collar workers, this has now begun to spread to knowledge workers as well. A Digital.com survey of 1,250 US employers found that 60% of employers with remote employees are using work monitoring software and almost 9 out of 10 of the companies had terminated workers because of the results of the process. Employers are tracking keystrokes, taking screenshots, recording mouse movements, activating webcams and microphones, or periodically snapping pictures without their staff knowing. Breaks can lead to penalties ranging from salary deductions to lost jobs. “We’re in this era of measurement but we don’t know what we should be measuring,” said Ryan Fuller, former vice president for workplace intelligence at Microsoft. The tech giant launched a product called Productivity Score a few years ago which rated employees based on their digital activities. This product was not well received and Microsoft issued an apology.
Why is it important?
Proponents of these tools claim efficiency and accountability are the benefits but critics say it comes at the expense of trust between managers and employees. Recent research shows that it also doesn’t necessarily improve productivity. Workers are stripped of their independence and are unlikely to become more compliant. In fact, HBR found that “monitored employees were substantially more likely to take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage workplace property, steal office equipment, and purposefully work at a slow pace”, among other rule-breaking behaviours. Employees, by and large, do not respond well to being monitored. This stems largely from them experiencing ‘a drop in agency’. Digital monitoring also has an impact on the retention of staff and the attracting of new talent.
What can businesses do about it?
Despite the controversy surrounding this practice, many employers are going ahead with digitally monitoring their employees. There is evidence for and against monitoring’s effectiveness. According to the Harvard Business Review, “When used right, monitoring employees can prevent accidents, boost performance, and improve overall well being.” When used incorrectly it could have the reverse effect. It can reduce employees’ sense of personal responsibility and hinder productivity. According to the Harvard Business Review, there are many ways leaders can enact monitoring in a just way:
- Leaders should find ways to consult with employees and provide clear and honest communication on when and how the monitoring will be conducted, and
- Give employees access to their own data and anonymised team data which can be used for the benefit of employees, for example, to inform wellness initiatives or professional development opportunities.
Monitoring should be put forward as a tool to empower and not punish employees.
By Faeeza Khan
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Image credit: HJ Barazza