July 4, 2022
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For an employee of the company, monitoring creates a work culture in which missteps can be recognized and punished.
Joshua knows that supervising his work is part of his job.
His employer, a Londonbased money market broker, uses a software system that automatically tracks his activities. Joshua’s last name was withheld to protect his job security.
Every detail of your work computer has been tweaked for you to monitor: from the screen off time, which is set to the lowest setting to make it easier for the boss to check if it’s idle, to an instant chat tool , specially designed to be used in any communication with colleagues.
He works from home on the premise that his boss can verify every login or keyboard or mouse input.
Joshua claims he’s so used to being followed that he often forgets. “Investment banks often operate under paranoia. The data we handle is so sensitive that any disgruntled employee can cause major damage,” he said.
Although he was never specifically told he was being monitored, Joshua explains that it’s standard practice in his line of work. UK law requires companies in the financial sector to have a monitoring program. And in the United States, financial institutions are required to keep records of all workrelated communications.
For Joshua, this creates a work culture in which missteps can be recognized and punished thanks to surveillance technology.
“You have to understand that everything you write will be read by management,” he explains. “All is well until the day you are surprised and fired for saying something deemed inappropriate.”
Employee monitoring has been around for some time in a variety of forms, from tracking hours worked to collecting employee data in highly regulated industries like finance.
But surveillance software, often secret in nature, began infiltrating administrative work amid the pandemic, spreading into industries that traditionally did not require scrupulous tracking of employees.
Now that remote and hybrid work patterns are becoming more common, employers are looking for ways to manage outcomes and teams with monitoring software.
While this can help enable collaboration outside of the office, in some cases these monitoring tools can also be implemented when there is concern that employees will not get their work done in front of bosses.
But what if employees start to stop being watched, could it destroy their confidence and motivation? Or is the problem not necessarily in the technology, but in the way it is implemented?
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In some industries, surveillance has always been part of the corporate culture
Increased monitoring of employees
From instore surveillance to call center surveillance, some bosses have long used technology to keep tabs on their employees, whether for security or performance reasons.
Scott Walker, chief executive of UK staffing firm XpertHR, says employees in these industries tend to be more accepting of surveillance because its importance to the business has long been recognized.
“In certain work environments, such as call centers, monitoring is used for training purposes. In other industries that have to meet legal requirements, data collection [também] makes sense,” he said.
But the pandemic has sparked the indiscriminate use of employee surveillance. As teams began working from home, some employers installed monitoring software to track their productivity.
A December 2021 study of over 2,209 UK workers found that 60% of them believed they had been subject to some form of surveillance and surveillance at their current or previous job, compared with 53% in 2020.
The use of these monitoring tools increased even as most employees returned to the office full or parttime. According to consultancy Gartner, the percentage of mediumsized and large US employers using monitoring tools has doubled to 60% since March 2020.
According to Brian Kropp, vice president and head of HR research at Gartner Group, that number is projected to reach 70% in the next two years. “Originally, companies were concerned about people working from home: ‘Are they going to work or just sitting and watching TV?'” he says. “Tracking tools have been introduced to monitor productivity.”
Much of this surveillance software has since been installed on work computers, with or without the knowledge of employees. Some of these programs, nicknamed Bossware (derived from boss or “boss” in English), can record keystrokes, take screenshots, and secretly activate the cameras of employees working from home.
This technology often goes unnoticed, which means employees may not know that their boss is actually spying on them.
And while remote work thrived, so did surveillance. Investment bank employees, for example, complain that this is done secretly via their ID cards and attendance data.
Monitoring has been extended to sectors that do not necessarily have a track record of employees. For example, Kate works for a design and marketing agency in California, USA. When employees began remote work, a tracking device was installed on their computer.
She was told that the software was a means of tracking her hours. But in addition to access times, it controls your browser tabs and also regularly creates screenshots that are sent to the company for analysis.
Kate whose last name is also omitted claims the software is affecting her reach. “I’m not sure why capturing my screens to create illustrations is so important to my work. Also, the software really slows down my computer,” she explains.
“I get nervous if I watch even a five minute video on my lunch break because I’m afraid someone will see a YouTube screenshot and I might get fired.”
The longterm consequences
Not surprisingly, the rapid rise in employee surveillance is eroding relationships between workers and employers. As surveillance increases, so does distrust of workers.
In a recent survey of 2,000 American remote and hybrid workers, 59% said they felt stressed or anxious about their employer monitoring their online activity.
Key factors include the constant questioning of being watched and the pressure to work longer hours and take fewer breaks during the day. Almost half said surveillance was a breach of trust.
Kropp says the covert nature of surveillance can be very damaging to employee trust. “Overall, workers are not very enthusiastic about the idea of surveillance,” he says.
“But you can respond to concerns by being honest and transparent about why you’re doing it and how the data is being used.”
“If the company doesn’t communicate and employees find out they’re being monitored, that becomes a bigger problem.
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“I get nervous just watching a fiveminute video on my lunch break”
With more companies now having some form of monitoring in place, it is becoming increasingly difficult for workers to choose companies that do not have some form of employee monitoring in place, even amid the hiring crisis and talent scramble in some countries.
Remote tools used by workers, for example, are increasingly integrated with monitoring technology. “We probably won’t have separate technology to monitor or track employees in the future,” says Kropp. “It will be more embedded in what we do and how we work. [mesmas] Tools we work with are the ones that will haunt us.”
Additionally, according to Kropp, some companies are even implementing the same productivity tracking software to monitor worker wellbeing: “The data collection is essentially the same. Facial expressions and their interpretation, but with the prospect of finding out if someone is working too hard and is at risk of burnout.”
In addition to making employees uncomfortable, some experts believe that the increasing ubiquity of employee surveillance could affect the work environment.
“More than a culture of fear, a culture of distrust can be created,” says Kropp. “That lack of trust makes it all the more difficult for the organization to do its job.”
But the problem is not necessarily the technology, but how it is implemented. Some level of oversight can actually be beneficial for managing workflow and employee morale, especially with remote and hybrid teams.
San Franciscobased data analytics startup Stellate has a fully decentralized team spread across the globe. In addition to collaboration tools, it tracks employee development with training and mentoring software.
“You need to rally the teams around the ideas and intentions behind the monitoring, and then align the process,” says Sue Odio, COO of Stellate. “It’s less about the product you use and more about the intention.”
Kropp believes that in the next phase of hybrid work, employers will establish ethics about if, when and how monitoring should be implemented. For him, transparent guidelines help employees to choose the right company for them.
“Some companies will say they give the employee maximum autonomy and flexibility without oversight and absolute trust. Others will make it clear that there is greater vigilance and will present salary as their value proposition,” he says.
Joshua got used to recording his activities.
“I used to have heat and motion sensors installed under my desk,” he says.
“Now it’s more subtle. Even if they work remotely, it’s very easy for them to know what I’m doing thanks to the monitoring tools. For me it’s not about fairness, it’s just a consequence of the process.”
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