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Employee monitoring: why surveillance will never be the answer

Last updated on
September 22, 2021

As millions of people discovered this year, remote working has plenty of perks. There’s no crushing commute, no sad lunchtime sandwiches, no interruptions from colleagues dropping by your desk. But while by and large output hasn’t dropped during lockdown, some employees are concerned that their productivity is down.

Apparently, this is a concern that’s shared by their employers too. At the same time as there’s been a surge in people working from home, there’s been a surge in demand for surveillance software (with customer bases quadrupling in the last year alone for one employee surveillance company). But keeping track of what employees are doing is one thing – spying on them is a whole other ball game. Here’s why surveillance will never be the answer to employee monitoring.

Why is employee monitoring increasing?

It’s not hard to see why the increased demand for employee monitoring software has been so dramatic. A lot of organizations still have outdated views about remote working, believing it’s essentially an excuse for employees to laze around at home all day (spoiler: it isn’t). When the pandemic forced these companies to go remote, they did so grudgingly. Many companies also felt they needed to match – or even increase – management practices used in the office, and faced with so many doubts they believed surveillance tools might solve the problem.

To a point, this is understandable. As collaboration shifts to the virtual realm, organizations are desperately seeking ways to keep the remote employee experience visible – and for many companies, the motivation to monitor staff is honest enough. Going remote overnight isn’t easy, and a lot of people have struggled to adapt. It makes sense that managers want to ensure newly remote teams have a manageable workload, maintain a healthy work/life balance and progress with their tasks. Armed with this data, managers can identify employee challenges early to offer effective support and keep geographically distributed teams aligned.

💻 How to keep remote work visible

Sacrificing culture for visibility

Instead of merely trying to remain in the loop, too many companies are defaulting to primitive surveillance tools to bridge this managerial knowledge gap. The surveillance tech they use to monitor employees use invasive tactics to gauge employee performance, productivity, and hours at work – things like candid screenshots, tracking keystrokes and mouse movements, and accessing employee devices remotely. And perhaps most shocking of all is the fact that some of this surveillance is covert, and employees have no idea they’re being tracked.

There is so much wrong with this approach to employee monitoring. Ultimately, it creates a one-way power dynamic and fosters a presumption of guilt. It completely destroys trust and undermines employees’ right to privacy. This type of employee monitoring is bad enough in the office, but when people are working from home it takes on a new shape – because your home should always be a private space. And of course, it’s also a shockingly tone deaf approach to management in a time when everyone is trying to adjust to new ways of working in a prolonged period of global uncertainty.

Tools like Hubstaff let managers take candid screenshots of employee monitors

How to monitor employees

So if this is the wrong way to monitor employees, what’s the right way to do it? First, we need to totally rethink the concept of “monitoring”. It’s not about keeping a watchful eye on your employees – and it’s important to be aware of the fact that there isn’t really any evidence that employees are more productive when they’re monitored. Employee monitoring should be about keeping basic employee performance and wellbeing indicators visible. It’s crucial that people don’t feel like they’re being constantly spied on – especially inside their homes.

Rather than using surveillance tech that takes screenshots and monitors keystrokes, companies should instead introduce culture-friendly tracking tools which provide user-level privacy by design. The reason time tracking tools like Timely are trusted by teams, is because everyone remains in control of their data – nothing is shared publicly without individual consent. Any software you use should protect employee agency, laying out how data is collected and what information managers can see. It should also clearly benefit employees themselves, not just their employers.

Privacy-first trackers like Timely keep employees in control of their information

Of course, any metrics-based employee tracking tool should always be coupled with real human management. Apart from just protecting space to regularly check in with employees, managers need to lead with empathy. That means offering employees basic pscyhological safety, so they feel comfortable raising concerns and contributing ideas. It also means prioritizing trust, learning how to better support employee wellbeing and actively encouraging feedback.

Using anonymous feedback mechanisms can help to build psychological safety

Ultimately, the best remote cultures are generous ones. They recognize everyone’s humanity and work to better understand individual needs – helping to make the remote experience as healthy, happy and fulfilling as possible.

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