How worker surveillance is backfiring on employers

Before the pandemic, Mark had a lot of autonomy in his job in the IT department of a US industrial firm. He and his teammates were able to get their work done, he says, “without our manager doing much, you know, managing”

That changed abruptly when the company transitioned to working from home. “The monitoring started on day one,” says Mark, whose surname is being withheld for career concerns. The company began using software that enabled remote control of employees’ systems, and Mark says his team had to give their manager the password “so he could connect without us having to accept. If the password changed, he requested it by email first thing in the morning”.

The surveillance, explained Mark’s manager, was aimed at making sure everyone stayed productive and had the same kind of open communication they’d had in the office. In reality, it made Mark anxious, and contributed to him quickly feeling overworked and burnt out. “It was just stressful, feeling that I had to be actively using the computer at all times for fear of him thinking something like a phone call or bathroom break was me slacking off,” he says.

With the rise in remote work has come a surge in workplace monitoring – some 2022 estimates posit the number of large firms monitoring workers has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. Some monitoring programs record keystrokes or track computer activity by taking periodic screenshots. Other software records calls or meetings, even accessing employees’ webcams. Or, like in Mark’s case, some programmes enable full remote access to workers’ systems. 

Regardless of how they choose to monitor workers, many firms are embracing monitoring because they believe it ensures the productivity of remote employees, says Karen Levy, associate professor in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University, US, and author of the book Data Driven: Truckers, Technology, and the New Workplace Surveillance.

But amid the uptick in monitoring, there’s mounting evidence that electronic surveillance can, in some cases, do more harm than good. Workers chafe against it, and surveillance can lead to stress, cause employees to quit and even make workers do their job worse – on purpose.

More workers being watched 

A 2021 study from internet-security tool ExpressVPN of 2,000 employers and 2,000 employees working remotely or on a hybrid schedule showed that close to 80% of bosses use monitoring software.

“Managers are increasingly interested in using software to monitor employees’ keystrokes, activities and attention in new ways,” says Levy. She adds some are even doing “more fine-grained data collection about workers’ communications – since so much more of that happens on digital channels rather than face-to-face – and bodies, through wearable technologies and biometrics”. Some companies, for instance, have installed time-clocks that scan an employee’s fingerprint to clock them in and out. Some use webcams to collect data on eye movement, which is used to track an employee’s attention.

Still, says Levy, other companies aren’t just watching what employees are doing in a given moment, but also using that information to anticipate what they might do, through “predictive analytics about whether a worker is likely to, for example, ask for a raise or leave for another job”. Software that monitors employee search history – and even social media – can reveal they’re on the job hunt, and trackers that capture things like tone of voice can indicate a worker’s level of engagement.

Not every firm keeping tabs on employees is implementing surveillance software due to suspicion; some are required to, says Levy, “for security reasons, or in order to comply with laws or regulations in some industries”.

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