The age of workplace surveillance

The world has seen a rise in workplace surveillance tools since the pandemic. What are the benefits of spying on your staff? And are there any alternatives to ensuring your employees aren't stepping out of line?...
HR Grapevine
HR Grapevine | Executive Grapevine International Ltd
The age of workplace surveillance
Workplace surveillance might alleviate anxiety for employers, but this is often offset by increased stress for staff

Since the pandemic, workplace surveillance has gained fast momentum. In April 2020, the global demand for employee monitoring software more than doubled. With remote work a staple part of employment, businesses are having to trust their staff now more than ever. But many are finding it difficult to do so.

Employee monitoring includes keystroke tracking, video surveillance, and in some cases GPS location tracking – all with the aim to trace performance, increase productivity, and clamp down on rule breaking and procrastination.

There are many examples of workplace surveillance, but all of them are enough to send a shiver of anxiety down an employee’s spine. One marketing company based in Florida screenshot staff desktops every 10 minutes to gauge if they were working hard enough. Whilst another firm installed software on staff laptops to track movement and develop productivity reports to be discussed in one-to-one meetings.

Employees are more likely to misbehave

The reality is, a lot of staff monitoring rarely has the desired effect. In some cases, it might encourage staff to work harder and procrastinate less. But in most cases, getting staff to work better through fear and negative reinforcement can make employees more disengaged, cause higher rates of turnover, and can have the inverse effect of making staff more likely to break rules.

A study from Harvard Business Review found that monitored workers were substantially more likely to take unauthorised breaks, go against instructions, damage or steal workplace property, or purposefully work slowly. The research proved, to some extent, that when monitored people subconsciously feel they are less responsible for their own actions, causing them to break rules more carelessly.

Back to the office

When we speak about workplace monitoring, the conversation is really about productivity. And the UK has had an apparent productivity crisis since the pandemic. Productivity has been a key concern for government figures in recent years because of the link it has to the UK’s economic growth, which has been lagging behind the likes of Germany, France, and the US since the pandemic.

The response has been a growing productivity paranoia which has spread through the business world like wildfire. There’s been a perfect storm of situations which led to an increase in productivity paranoia, the rise of remote work and a cost-of-living crisis have both had an impact.

Remote work requires a lot of trust from employers, especially in terms of believing staff are doing what they should be and not taking the mick. Many big companies, as a result, have ordered their staff back to the office in a bid to increase productivity and profit. And this, of course, has led to a long-standing debate about whether remote work or office-based work is more conducive to productivity.

For productivity paranoia to end, managers need to recognise their experiences as leaders, are not the same as their teams. Employees want their managers to be empathetic, supportive and show an interest in their work, without feeling like they are trying to interfere

Marc Holl | Head of Primary Care, Nuffield Health

Bernat Farrero, CEO and co-founder of Factorial believes an office-based approach can eliminate the need for surveillance tools and instead create a workplace founded on communication, transparency and trust.

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