Employee monitoring: productivity booster or morale buster?

The use of employee monitoring software has risen sharply but its negative impact on staff morale could outweigh any benefits by Sophie Mackenzie

The spread of hybrid working has led to an increase in employee monitoring in the US, with “eight of the ten largest American companies” using tracking software to keep tabs on their employees, according to a Harvard Business Review article by Nir Eyal, who cites figures from a New York Times piece.

Research would seem to back this up: a report by Spherical Insights & Consulting valued the global employee monitoring software market at US$1.12bn in 2021 and predicts that it will reach US$2.1bn by 2030. In the UK, according to research commissioned by compliance training firm Skillcast, 12% of companies use online software to track their employees, rising to 16% at larger organisations.

On the face of it, systems and software that measure presence, punctuality, and productivity might seem like a good idea, providing managers with useful and unbiased metrics to assess performance, particularly when a workforce is remote or hybrid. As Eyal puts it, “The rise of remote work has made corporate leaders paranoid, thinking they must monitor their employees’ every digital move.”

And monitor they can – a round-up in PC Magazine sets out the functionality offered by ‘bossware’ tech, including optical character recognition that can analyse text on screen and within videos and provide ‘deep monitoring’ on employees’ usage of desktop and web apps, and systems that monitor team communication apps for keyword triggers and even access employees’ webcams.
Who’s watching Big Brother? The higher uptake of such technology in the US can partly be explained by a more liberal regulatory landscape. Although a 2022 national survey by Morning Consult of 750 tech workers finds that about half would leave their jobs rather than be recorded or videoed by their employer, there is no legal obligation in the US for employers to inform staff they are being monitored. According to a Forbes article by career coach Caroline Castrillon, “monitoring employee activities during work hours is completely legal”, and “most state and federal laws allow organisations to investigate anything that happens on company-owned devices”.

In the UK, the situation is somewhat different. The Data Protection Act 2018, which incorporates the provisions of the EU General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), obliges businesses to be fully transparent about how their employees’ data is collected and processed. That protection extends beyond the staff member to their family or cohabitants who could be, for example, recorded or captured on a webcam without their consent – a point made in an article in People Management by Simon McMenemy. “Managers should ask whether the scrutiny is really necessary and worth the possible risk of offending privacy laws,” he advises, while a blog post by the Information Commissioner’s Office recommends that companies “should consider whether [staff oversight] is necessary and proportionate and whether it could intrude on employees’ personal lives”.
Keep the small rules, break the big ones Even without a potential regulatory minefield to navigate, many believe that productivity monitoring has the opposite of the desired effect – that it “could actually be one of the worst strategies ever”, as work futurist Dominic Price writes in an article for Atlassian. And in the Harvard Business Review article, Eyal points out that productivity software often measures “vanity metrics”, such as the quantity of emails sent, the time spent tapping away at a keyboard, or the numbers of virtual meetings a staff member attends. It disregards accomplishments and outcomes, he writes, as well as “time spent thinking, reading or writing on paper”.

What’s more, Castrillon cites research claiming that employee monitoring actually makes people more likely to break the rules and “take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage workplace property, steal office equipment and purposefully work at a slow pace”. This, she writes, could be because they “subconsciously feel that they are less responsible for their behaviour”.

Instead, she advocates investing in strategies proven to improve productivity, such as “employee engagement, communication and recognition programmes”.

Or even, suggests Price, shift the focus altogether, towards mapping out and celebrating milestones, building feedback loops, looking for continuous improvement and valuing employee wellbeing. “The best time to kill the cult of productivity was 20 years ago. The second best time is today,” he writes.
Seen a blog, news story or discussion online that you think might interest CISI members? Email fred.heritage@wardour.co.uk.
Published: 19 Jan 2023
  • Training, Competence and Culture
  • Soft Skills
  • Integrity & Ethics
  • Fintech
  • fintech
  • technology
  • performance review

No Comments

Sign in to leave a comment

Leave a comment