If your company isn’t using surveillance technology to track your work yet, it probably will soon, according to data. But monitoring can erode trust and damage already-fragile company cultures—and it may not even be measuring the right things.
Regardless of the challenges, many organizations are turning to tracking technology to measure productivity, especially with more employees working from home. And this trend is becoming more common with all kinds of workers, even those for whom tracking may seem like a stretch. Chaplains who are held to a point system based on how many times they check in with patients, or medical workers whose hand-washing is tracked only the beginning. The prevalence of surveillance technology, the reduction of in-person work and the pressure on company results all seem to have created a perfect storm for tracking to become the new norm.
Consequences of these capabilities and systems–both intended and unintended–are significant, and growth in sensing technology will have far-reaching implications for our social norms and systems. Data gathering is not inherently negative, it’s a matter of how transparent companies are in gathering information and the choices they make about how the data is used.
Wide Use of Surveillance
Wide varieties of tracking are common, from tracking email, phone calls or keystrokes to counting numbers of badge-ins to the office. Facial recognition and audio and video recordings are becoming commonplace. And employers argue they need the tracking systems to monitor productivity, but also to ensure compliance to policies or protection of sensitive data. They also use the data to make business decisions or improve processes.
According to a study by Top10VPN, global demand for employee monitoring software is up 78% in January 2022 which is the largest increase in years, and the demand has been steadily increasing over the last few years. Research by Gartner found that in the next three years, 70% of large firms will be using tracking software. Another report estimated 8 out of 10 of the largest privately held companies use it today.
But workers are resisting, according to a study by Morning Consult which found about half of tech workers would quit a job, or would avoid taking a new job if they knew tracking was occurring. Additional research by Gartner found 10% of employees try to trick tracking systems in order to doctor their data or undermine it.
The Problem With Surveillance
There are plenty of problems with surveillance, but it may also be a fact of life going forward—and something people will need to get used to. Within a world where your data is everywhere, devices listen to your words, cameras monitor your face and GPS systems know your whereabouts, ubiquitous organizational tracking may be inevitable.
But like so many things, it’s not the what, it’s the how. If companies are going to use surveillance or employee monitoring, there are ways to make it less damaging to culture and retain trust in the process.
#1 – Be Open
Trust in all kinds of relationships—with people or with organizations—is built on openness as a fundamental starting point. As a result, if an organization is going to use tracking software, it is wise to let people know about the tracking. While employees may not want to be tracked, when it is done without employee knowledge, it can erode trust (even more).
Companies can balance the need for both security and privacy by educating people about why they’re gathering information and being as transparent as possible. Trust and positive culture are also enhanced by providing more choice and control—giving employees the opportunity to opt out of data gathering when it’s possible. Let people know what’s being tracked, and inform people about when they’re being tracked and under what conditions.
If the tracking is done for the purposes of supporting employees or improving processes, being open about it shouldn’t be a challenge. But if tracking is occurring as a gotcha strategy—in which the goal is to catch people misbehaving or punish them—the relationships with employees and the culture will pay steep prices.
#2 – Be Real
Companies are also wise to recognize the limitations of tracking systems. They may be able to count keystrokes, but not monitor the extent to which an employee is a great team player, or the ways a worker contributes to the company’s credibility through delivering outstanding customer service. Productivity is a small picture, while performance (which includes all kinds of less quantifiable skills) is the bigger picture.
And surveillance systems are only as effective as the assumptions which drive the algorithms. If a system is monitoring an employee’s speed in reading emails, it may not be accounting for the need to take notes or reflect the content of the email. If a system is measuring meeting effectiveness by counting the number of hierarchical layers (leaders and their leaders) in the session, it may not be accounting for a culture in which leaders are participative or appropriately hands on. It’s hard to resist calling on Plato, the classical philosopher who said if people don’t understand their tools, they are destined to become tools of their tools—ancient wisdom for sure.
Tracking systems also fall short in accounting for the work employees do when they’re not in front of their computer. The hours a worker spends reflecting on a problem offline, leading to a breakthrough. Or the time an employee devotes to business reading or networking which are important to effectiveness, but not reflected in the speed of laptop input.
#3 – Be Clear
It’s also helpful to be clear about why the surveillance technology is being used, and to communicate the expectations for performance which go along with it. For example, is the tracking being used to monitor productivity or to protect company information? In addition, how will it be used in performance reviews and decisions about pay and promotion?
It’s also important to clarify the elements of performance which go beyond tracking. In addition to keystrokes, how is collaborative behavior measured? And how are new ideas or brilliant innovations credited to an employee’s performance? Letting people know not only what counts, but what matters are important to motivating them about the kinds of work which will be most meaningful, and contribute to their career progression.
#4 – Be Focused
Companies are most effective when people are engaged, inspired and empowered—so it’s critical to ensure surveillance technology delivers benefits not only to organizations, but also to employees. Part of the human condition is reciprocity—when people receive something, they are motivated to give something in return. Consider fitness tracking in which people freely give their most personal data to companies because they get something meaningful in return—data about their health which they find useful.
In using employee surveillance, be focused on how employees can derive value. How might calendar tracking help employees take more time off? In what ways might email tracking result in rewards or bonuses? And how might badge-swipe data help people find friends in the office or plan for the community event on the day most people are in the office?
#5 – Be Human
When organizations use tracking, it’s also critical to develop leaders who can use the data in constructive ways. If data is used to micromanage or threaten, it will certainly create atmospheres in which people are distrustful and in which they will lack motivation or engagement. The alternative is to give people as much control over their work and their data as possible, and to give them open access to the data.
In addition, the data should be part of ongoing conversations about not just what is counted, but the overall performance of the employee, including how their work contributions to the big picture, where they are and where they’d like to develop.
At its worst, surveillance can dehumanize and distance people—as the reports and spreadsheets are prioritized above relationships. But the opposite is best for engagement—people who feel valued, respected and supported in their work.
If companies are going to track employees, the overall culture and relationships will make or break the process. For organizations, the ideal is constructive, productive cultures where people want to work, give discretionary effort and contribute their best skills.
The best cultures are transparent—sharing openly so employees can make the most informed decisions. They seed innovation by fostering appropriate risk taking, and encourage employees to share and explore. The ways companies gather, track, and monitor information send important messages to employees about value and trust.
When organizations value employees, create cultures of openness and respect and hold leaders accountable for managing effectively, these go a long way toward accepting people surveillance as a system to support the work, rather than tool to manipulate, control or remove quality of life. Ultimately, companies need to do what’s right—not just what’s possible—by using their values as a guide.