Is it fair or productive to monitor workers?

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It goes without saying that the biggest change in the workplace over the past two years has been its demise. Or rather, its withdrawal from the physical world and re-emergence into the digital limbo of work anywhere from Zoom meetings and Slack channels. And, with a few caveats, the solid conclusion was that, yes, remote workers can still get their jobs done from their kitchen table, spare bedroom, shed, or the patio of their favorite coffee shop.

But let’s be honest: the office isn’t just a place to work, it can also be the place to be. observed do its job. That’s why a significant number of companies whose workforce has recently moved away have turned to monitoring software, also known as “tattleware” or “bossware”, to find out what their employees.

There is an old saw in business: what gets measured gets managed. It has been elevated to the gospel when it comes to raw materials, waste, energy consumption, emissions, etc. Seen this way, surveillance technology might not be a bad idea. It helps to measure what your employees are doing and their productivity. What makes monitoring difficult is connecting it to management, even control.

In January 2021, reports revealed that one in five companies were using monitoring software to remotely monitor their employees, in some cases without the knowledge or consent of employees. Where monitoring software was once a relatively small market populated by benign sounding products like Hubstaff, ActivTrak, Workpuls, BeeBole, and Time Doctor, it has grown. A lot.

Hard numbers are hard to come by, but, according to Top10VPN analysis released in August, U.S. demand for employee monitoring software is up 58% since 2020. The same report noted that in April 2020, as full implications of bottlenecks and work – home orders have been fulfilled, demand for employee monitoring software soared 87% and declined only slightly, to 71% above the previous average the pandemic a month later.

Since then, employee monitoring software has remained a booming business. And for people who love privacy and employers who want to have a good relationship with their employees, that might not be a good thing.

“When the pandemic hits, you suddenly see the reality, which is that [organizations] don’t trust employees, they never did, ”Ben Laker, professor of leadership at Henley Business School near London, told me. “Suddenly organizations panic—how can we control [our workers] if we don’t see them? At this very heart, there is simply no trust.

Surveillance technology can include taking screenshots of an employee’s computer at regular intervals, tracking the websites they visit during company hours, monitoring their keystrokes keyboard and mouse movements, and even scoring of their remote location, letting employers know whether their employees are at their desks in their home offices, having lunch or picking up their children from school. The avowed purpose of surveillance is often “to increase productivity”. But the big question is: is it worth it?

Positive reinforcement?

Studies show that being watched reinforces positive social behaviors and inhibits negative behaviors. If you think you’re being watched, for example, you’re more likely to donate to charity and less likely to throw away trash, steal a bike, or take too much Halloween candy. And there are, theoretically, valid positive reasons for monitoring, including to protect employees against internal discrimination and harassment; employees can also use the data collected to, as one scholar put it, “look back” on employers and report problematic, even dangerous, practices through whistleblowing.

But even in the 1980s, with the minimum electronic monitoring available, employees whose performance was monitored perceived their working conditions as more stressful and reported higher levels of job boredom, fatigue, anger, anxiety. and even depression and other health problems. Observers, including in places like the the Wall Street newspaper, feared that electronic surveillance could turn the modern office into “fish jars” and “sweatshops”.

Workplace surveillance continued, however, despite evidence that it tended to undermine trust between employee and employer. And now the shift to remote working means that surveillance that was once limited to the office is finally taking place wherever the employee is. Almost nowhere is safe from Big Brother.

In some cases, however, monitoring has been shown to not promote productivity or curb negative behavior. On the one hand, teleworkers are already more productive, followed or not. An April 2021 Bloomberg report found that working from home during the pandemic had increased productivity by 5% in the United States. Plus, surveillance can backfire. In a 2011 study, computer surveillance that employees saw as an invasion of their privacy increased destructive employee behavior. Laker of Henley Business School suggests that employees who are over-supervised are deprived of a sense of freedom and empowerment, which in turn can undermine their performance. “Without autonomy, [employees] will not master [new skills] and they will have no purpose, ”he told me.

Confidentiality is important

However, any discussion of surveillance must take into account the world we live in today. The concerns we had about physical and digital privacy five years ago are not the same as we have now. Conversations about what it means to be private are shaped by the convenience and ubiquity of social media, big data and what Australian consultant and research professor Roger Clarke described in 2019 as “the economy of digital surveillance ”.

Despite the possibility that increased acceptance may mitigate some of the negative impacts of surveillance, it is difficult to get past the inherently disgusting nature of surveillance.

The recent increase in employee surveillance gained momentum during the pandemic, largely because it had to, but the bottom line is that we are now more used to being watched than ever before. We accept the intrusion of cameras into new spaces under the promise of increased security; doorbell cameras come to mind, but so do webcams and smartphones; we accept data tracking to prove that we are “not a bot” on websites; we accept that our information, clicks and preferences will be observed and noted.

We now seem ready to accept that companies have a reasonable expectation of protecting their own security, so to speak, by monitoring we. A recent survey by media researcher Clutch of 400 American workers found that only 22% of employees between the ages of 18 and 34 were concerned about their employers having access to their personal information and activities from their work computers. Meanwhile, in a pre-pandemic survey of U.S. workers by U.S. media group Axios from August 2019, 62 percent of those surveyed agreed that employers should be able to use technology to monitor employees.

And yet, despite the possibility that increased acceptance may mitigate some of the negative impacts of surveillance, it is difficult to get past the inherently disgusting nature of surveillance. “Show me someone who wants to be watched,” Laker said.

So, is there a way to monitor workers ethically and appropriately? Much depends on how the employees themselves feel being watched. Amy Vatcha of the London School of Economics wrote in a 2020 article that employee acceptance of workplace monitoring “depends on these factors – transparency of data collection from employers, clarification of use data for system security or for hiring and firing decisions; and avenues available for employee privacy concerns to be heard.

These steps seem wise, but it’s hard to imagine all the companies that have rushed to install the technology have given thought to these protocols. So maybe the solution to maintaining increased productivity and keeping the remote office on the move is to confidence employees and leave the spyware alone.


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