Are you being watched? Workplace Surveillance is on the Rise

At the start of lockdown, a common concern among bosses was that out-of-sight workers would "shirk" their responsibilities whilst working from home. Even though lockdown did not actually appear to have had much of an effect on output, some companies have placed greater focus on what their staff get up to when they are not under supervision.

Business owners have taken to monitoring employees by requiring them to download software onto their work devices that keeps track of their performance. The software also takes into account the worker’s hours, websites visited, mouse movements and even the number of keystrokes within a specified time span.

One such product, Hubstaff, captures regular screenshots of the worker’s monitor, but others like Sneek and Time Doctor takes photos of the employee every 10 minutes, forcing staff to remain glued to their screens for prolonged periods even after their work is done for the day. Another low-tech approach being utilised requires staff to say logged in to teleconferencing services like Zoom so that they can be continually monitored.

Whilst the underlying intent is to document how long workers spend on certain tasks and weed out which ones are underperforming, the increase in the use of workplace surveillance is one that could spell disaster to the trust between managers and employees, and will slowly chip away at any sense of loyalty staff may have toward the company. The constant monitoring could be perceived as an invasion of privacy, particularly for those working from the comfort of their living room, bedroom, or kitchen table.

The whole methodology of workplace surveillance can be a micromanaging nightmare, offering very little benefit to all parties involved. First of all, someone has to be put in charge of monitoring the performance of every single employee. Software programs will keep a record of computer usage, but someone still has to review the gathered information, taking time away from engaging in more important tasks.

Employees that tend to “slack off” will learn that the couple of hours a day that the manager is around is the time to “look busy”. For high performing employees, the anxiety of having someone spying on their every move can be distracting and may be enough to drive them out of the company or turn them into a slacker themselves in order to play the system.

Even all-day Zoom calls meant to make staff feel “like they are back in the office” can prove highly disruptive and have an even worse effect on productivity than if staff were left to their own devices- quite literally! With the knowledge that all their actions being recorded, employees will worry that any mistake they make will be caught on surveillance and result in disciplinary action. This will cause staff to hesitate in performing tasks, causing “analysis paralysis” if they are not sure of what is expected of them, increasing the risk of burnout as a result of the pressure.

Firms that are considering the use of monitoring software should think very carefully on how and why it is being used. A written policy should be in place so that staff are made aware of how they are being monitored to alleviate any concerns.  The Data Protection Act does not prevent employers from monitoring their workers, however it is important that workers are entitled to a certain level privacy whilst at work. There should also be clear guidance for managers and safeguards in place to prevent misuse or "over-monitoring".

Any measurement of productivity must be proportionate to the tasks carried out by the employee. Recording the number of keystrokes or how many times a person moves a mouse is irrelevant for certain job roles and would potentially place individuals at a disadvantage to their peers. Likewise, all-day Zoom sessions are unnecessary, however regular meetings to check-in with staff would be more appropriate. Focusing on support for employees struggling with working from home will yield better results than a ‘Big Brother’ approach can ever hope to achieve.

About the author

Jessica joined RWA in 2018, having graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Film Studies. Her role as a content designer involves developing new and engaging e-learning modules as well as assisting in the creation of articles for Insight. 

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