Big Brother appears to be getting bigger in the business world. The fictional character in George Orwell’s 1984, whose name is synonymous with surveillance, is enjoying increased popularity among many companies who think it is necessary to monitor their remote workers.
The Washington Post reported last Friday that, “Market research firm Gartner says companies used more surveillance tools during the coronavirus pandemic to keep tabs on employees and monitor work productivity. The number of large employers using tools to track their workers doubled since the beginning of the pandemic to 60 percent. That number is expected to rise to 70 percent within the next three years,” said Brian Kropp, chief of human resources research at Gartner.
“And the software is expected to become even more sophisticated, telling employers how to turn the data they collect into actionable measures to drive the business. Soon it might do things like tell managers how employees work together via Zoom, understand who the main contributors are and how specific patterns may lead to specific results.”
Last May, Forbes’ Deputy Business Editor Kristin Stoller reported that, “A new study released by research firm Gartner shows that employees are nearly two times more likely to pretend to be working when their employers use tracking systems to monitor their output. Gartner surveyed more than 2,400 professionals in January 2021.”
Accuracy notwithstanding, some corporate executives take issue with monitoring the work of employees.
“Our role as managers is to create an environment where people can do their best work. It’s really hard to do your best work if you feel like you are not trusted,” Carol Cochran, vice president of people and culture at remote career site FlexJobs, told Stoller. “If I feel like someone doesn’t trust me enough to feel like I’m doing my work without monitoring through software, how do I trust them back? How do I build that physical safety?”
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Sending The Wrong Message
Calloway Cook, the president of Illuminate Labs, decided not to monitor the productivity of his employees. He said, “Using tracking software sets a tone of distrust, which sources the employer/employee relationship from the beginning. When I was a remote employee, I would have hated such a thing, and I try to treat people how I’d like to be treated.
“Productivity can be checked by work output; these software monitoring tools mostly are useful for tracking hours worked, which don’t actually matter in regards to productivity. If an employee has a task, I don’t care if they complete it in one or ten hours so long as it gets done,” Cook said.
“I think that employers who use tracking software are likely to experience higher churn, because they’re creating a hostile work environment,” he predicted.
Doing More Harm Than Good
Malte Scholz, CEO and co-founder of Airfocus said, “I have experimented a bit with software for monitoring workers and came to realize it does more harm than good. You get insights in people’s activity online and the productivity rate, but the results can be misleading.
“Most of the software is automated which means you cannot really measure the work of people who are in more creative or human-oriented positions. They don’t click on their mouse or type on the keyboard as much.
“From the employee perspective, work monitoring software can create a lot of pressure, causing people to be extremely cautious about their activity online. Some may even randomly click on the keyboard in order to increase productivity thereby jeopardizing their main work. Somehow these employee monitoring tools become the primary focus instead of being extra help for understanding how people perform.”
Old World Thinking
Lars Hyland, chief learning officer of Totara Learning, observed that, “Monitoring employees is old world thinking, that is not [a good fit]…in a future that is uncertain, and requires flexible, adaptable people to respond to unexpected change. That requires trust.
“The alternative is to focus on what actually motivates people in the workplace. That is the opportunity to improve and master their skills, having a clear sense of shared purpose with the business that aligns with their personal values, and having a work environment that offers autonomy, the space and time to do their jobs well—a focus on effectiveness over efficiency,” he said.
Costing A Company
Sarah Hawley, CEO and founder of Growmotely and author of Conscious Leadership, is against using surveillance technology for employees. She said, ‘‘It’s a sure-fire way to create an environment where the team will not feel trusted or empowered, and this leads to a lack of engagement, poor culture and high turnover (all things that ultimately cost a company).
“Creating an environment where clear outcomes are set, where employees understand their roles and what’s expected of them, and then treating them like adults and making space for them to work in ways that most suit them… will lead to the opposite. Engaged team members who feel trusted, empowered and valued, positive culture and low turnover. A win-win for all,” Hawley concluded.
More Pervasive…And Sophisticated
In addition to becoming more pervasive, corporate Big Brother is more sophisticated. According to PCMag.com:
- On Slack, surveillance software can see private messages, private channels and, a complete history of everything users ever Slacked to anyone on corporate accounts.
- For Google Workspace users, emails (even drafts) are visible as well as anything that is uploaded or created in a Workspace app.
- The same goes for Microsoft Teams, Even the calls that are made using Teams or its Microsoft 365 Business Voice extension are fair game, as is the location of employees when they log into Teams.
PCMag.com noted that, “Some apps can take regular or on-demand screen shots of what’s on your computer, while others can take a quick snap of you using your webcam.”
Advice For Business Leaders
Corporate executives need to decide whether and to what extent they can trust the people they hire. And know that by monitoring remote workers, they might prevent one crisis, only to create another.