A Blog by Jonathan Low


Feb 13, 2023

Why Leaders Are Discovering That Workforce Surveillance Is Backfiring On Them

85% of leaders doubt their remote or hybrid workforces are productive. As a result, surveillance has more than doubled since the pandemic. 

The problem is that recent data reveal that workers who know they are being monitored are far more likely to act out, subverting workplace rules as a means of reasserting a sense of agency. Many end up quitting, contributing to failed outcome achievement. Most importantly, there is no evidence that surveillance improves workforce performance. Successful leaders recognize that collaborative workplace culture and standard setting is more likely to help achieve enterprise goals. JL 

Kate Morgan and Delany Nolan report in the BBC:

The number of firms monitoring workers doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. Of (those) working remotely or hybrid, 80% of bosses use monitoring software. But there’s mounting evidence surveillance can do more harm than good. A survey of tech workers showed that half would rather quit than have their employer monitor them. Surveillance can lead to stress, cause employees to quit and do their job worse on purpose. Employees under surveillance took more unapproved breaks, intentionally worked more slowly and stole more office equipment than the un-monitored. Monitoring made subjects feel a lack of agency and responsibility. They subvert workplace rules to get back a sense of control. "What was really surprising is we found no positive effect on performance”

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.

They think, ‘More and more and more, let’s use all these tools at our disposal.’ They want to have as much control as possible. And yet, of course, for employees, that control can often times feel oppressive – David Welsh

“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”. 

But most who use these programmes choose to do so. “Managers often think that knowing more about what workers are doing is useful for making decisions, or eliminating waste, or compelling workers to comply with a firm's goals,” says Levy. Some bosses simply want to know what their employees are up to. Microsoft’s 2022 Work Trend Index survey showed that 85% of leaders have trouble believing their workers are being productive. (‘Productivity paranoia’ has, indeed, become a major issue in the pandemic era.)

David Welsh, a professor at Arizona State University, US, who researches organisational and behavioural ethics, notes that companies often ascribe to a maximalist approach around employee monitoring. “They think, ‘More and more and more, let’s use all these tools at our disposal.’ They want to have as much control as possible. And yet, of course, for employees, that control can often times feel oppressive.”

A preference for privacy 

Data from research suggests that surveilling employees often backfires. Welsh and a team of fellow researchers posited that being monitored might make employees more likely to break rules. In one study, he and his colleagues found that US employees who were under surveillance took more unapproved breaks, intentionally worked more slowly and stole more office equipment than their un-monitored peers.

To determine causation – rather than just correlation – the team devised a second study in which workers were given a series of tasks and the opportunity to cheat on them. The half who knew they were under surveillance, they found, were more likely to cheat.

The monitoring made the subjects feel a lack of agency and responsibility, says Welsh, which led to bad behaviour. They were more likely to cheat while being watched because they “felt like they were being controlled, and they had less of a sense of personal responsibility because of how they were being monitored”, he says. It’s a phenomenon difficult to quantify, but more straightforward to understand: when workers aren’t afforded dignity and agency, they suffer. They often subvert workplace rules to get back a sense of control.

Welsh, too, says he confirmed “this counterintuitive idea that monitoring could actually lead people to break the rules more in some circumstances, or create the very types of behaviours it was designed to prevent”.

Rudolf Siegel, a researcher at Universität des Saarlandes in Germany, and co-author of a recent meta-analysis on the effects of electronic monitoring, says “what was really surprising is that we found no positive effect on performance”. In other words, the data showed monitoring employees offered no benefits, and instead damaged workplace culture and spurred counterproductive behaviour.

Workers who are watched against their may also devote more energy to finding creative ways to subvert the very controls employers have put in place. In one case, recalled Siegel, a lorry driver with GPS used tin foil to cover the antenna of the tracking system. In another case from the field of automation, employees who were being monitored were more likely to kick and box the robots they used at work.

“It raises our stress levels to be under observation all the time, and it impinges on our sense of autonomy and dignity,” says Levy. “So, managers who over-monitor workers may also see people leave for workplaces where they feel more respected.”

A better way to watch

It is important to note that monitoring is not objectively bad across the board, or without any benefits. For instance, some data has shown that being watched can boost performance and productivity. But the effects can vary among job functions and workers, and results often come down to how employers implement these technologies.

The real problems arise, says Levy, when monitoring that starts out rational or even beneficial begins to slowly creep into a different territory, making workers uncomfortable. “The issue is often that once you're monitoring for one reason, it's very easy to piggyback other rationales onto that,” she says. “If, for example, you have to do some worker monitoring that's legally required, it becomes very easy for that to justify much more surveillance and analysis of workers' performance in the name of productivity or efficiency, because often you can use the same technology to do both.”

The data showed monitoring employees offered no benefits, and instead damaged workplace culture and spurred counterproductive behaviour

Workers are, unsurprisingly, not thrilled with that kind of overreach, and it could push them out of those monitored jobs. A 2022 Morning Consult survey of 750 tech workers showed that half would rather quit than have their employer monitor them during the workday.

Levy thinks some employers will realise the liability, and stop monitoring rather than lose people. “I do think that employers, even acting entirely in their own best interests, may decide to limit monitoring to make their workplaces more attractive to in-demand workers, so that people want to stay in their jobs for long periods of time.”

There may also be ways to make being monitored a less objectionable experience for workers. If employers are transparent and upfront about the necessity and purposes of monitoring, Spiegel and Welsh’s studies both showed the negative effects are greatly reduced.

Welsh explains that when employees felt like they were “being treated fairly by their organisation”, they were less likely to cheat. “So, if you’re being monitored, but you think, ‘This is a fair company I’m working for, they do fair things’, you don’t have this negative reaction … [employees] want to have leaders who are ethical and treat them fairly.”

There is a way, then, for employers to feel like they know what people are up to without the alienating employees. The biggest improvement, says Levy, is involving the workers. “A clear place to start is, in a meaningful way, to bring workers into the process of determining what technology will be used, how the data it collects will be treated and who will have access to those data, and really thinking through how the technology can help workers to accomplish their work, rather than as a threat or a policing tool.”

In some cases, increased communication alone might be enough to help workers and bosses find a happy medium. When Mark reached his boiling point with his boss’ surveillance, he fired off a lengthy email explaining what made it so detrimental. He was prepared for a negative reaction to the criticism, and had decided having an angry boss was better than being watched. Instead, Mark was relieved when his boss was willing to find a solution.

“I proposed we instead send him an email report at the end of each day where we say what we did, plan to do the next day, and any problems. His response was that he only glanced at the screen on occasion and didn't realize it was a problem, and he agreed to my proposal,” says Mark. It turned out that while Mark and his colleagues were stressed out and squirming, their boss hadn’t even noticed. It took open communication, not covert surveillance, to solve the problem.

Of course, plenty of people work under company leadership that would be a lot less open to that kind of criticism – and some employees may not have much recourse. But Levy says their leaders would do well to hear these concerns. “Even if they don't entirely give up on monitoring,” she says, “there are ways to implement these tools with greater respect for workers.”


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