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Is employee surveillance a good idea during WFH?

Cathy Reisenwitz

by Cathy Reisenwitz on June 9, 2020

Across the country, businesses that went remote for COVID-19 are embracing WFH going forward. Twitter recently announced most employees never have to come back to the office, unless they want to. And Google recently abandoned more than two million square feet of planned office space.

This trend has also spiked demand for employee monitoring software. Hubstaff is one such solution. Founder and CEO Dave Nevogt told the NYT that trials have tripled since March.

Employee monitoring software offers advantages for employers at the possible expense of alienating employees. But just as importantly, employee monitoring software can’t yet accurately capture employee productivity for most knowledge/white-collar work, and can actually mislead bosses if used inappropriately.

Here’s what employee monitoring software does along with the benefits and drawbacks of using it.

What is employee monitoring software?

Employee monitoring software allows bosses to surveille their employees remotely through their computers and phones. This often includes reading their email and calendars, taking screenshots or video of their screens, logging keystrokes and whereabouts, and tracking which apps and websites they used and for how long. It then compiles this information into worker productivity reports and can send alerts based on employee behavior.

Employee surveillance was already becoming more popular before Coronavirus, according to Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor of labor relations and law at Cornell University.

In a recent survey by Accenture, 62% of executives said their companies are using tech to monitor employees. According to a 2018 Gartner survey of organizations worldwide, 22% are tracking employee movement such as physical location and mouse activity, and 17% are monitoring their work computer usage.

Coronavirus seems to have pushed fast-forward on employee surveillance plans. For example, Jarrod Easterwood, director of marketing and partner relations at Avuity, said he’s been busier in the past two months than ever in his professional career. His company makes occupancy sensors that connect with software showing where workers are in offices. And accounting and consulting firm PwC recently developed an app that monitors how close employees get to each other and notifies HR when an employee comes in contact with someone with the virus.

"This is the new normal of protecting employees' safety," said Dennis Kwan, CEO of TRACEsafe, which makes badges that monitor employees' location and proximity to one another. "It's just like [having] a safety policy ... just like sexual harassment policy, [like] child safety policy."

What are employees rights?

Attorney John Tomaszewski specializes in data protection, privacy and security. He advises companies who want to watch employees online to familiarize themselves with privacy protection laws, including the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and Stored Communications Act along with wiretap regulations at the state level.

But according to most experts, employees waive their consumer privacy protections when they accept the job and companies’ only real legal limit on employee surveillance in most states is an obligation to inform employees that they’re being tracked.

“Employees are in a difficult position. As more and more consumer privacy laws take shape, we’ve seen that there’s been a concern from companies that those privacy laws don’t apply to employees,” said Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Hubstaff’s Nevogt said that because workers know they are being watched, his software doesn’t violate their privacy.

"Employers really have carte blanche in terms of the policies they can institute, in terms of the technologies that they can employ," Ajunwa said. "The fact that you already have limitless worker surveillance and then you're instituting these new, more intense surveillance without any limits ... that doesn't give me confidence that these measures will go away ... ever."

What are the benefits of employee surveillance to companies?

Capterra describes several benefits of employee monitoring software to employers, including higher productivity, better information for promoting and compensating employees, and protection against wrongful termination lawsuits.

Companies have discovered through employee surveillance that social interaction is correlated with increased sales and lower turnover. As a result, one call center gave workers a shared 15-minute coffee break and a pharmaceutical company created a larger cafe area for workers to congregate.

“We’ve seen that [workforce data] could boost revenue by 6.4%,” said Eva Sage-Gavin, who leads Accenture’s talent and organization practice globally. “This has encouraged workers to be open to responsible use of data.”

What are the drawbacks to employee surveillance?

Destroys trust and harms engagement

Employee monitoring software could, in theory, motivate employees to be (or at least to seem), more productive during working hours. However, studies show employee engagement is key to productivity. And one thing that’s necessary for employee engagement is trust. Surveillance shows a lack of trust in employees, who are then likely to distrust management in return.

Since employee disengagement costs US organizations approximately $300 billion annually, companies might want to think carefully before investing in software that might erode it.

Employee surveillance can create unnecessary friction between workers and bosses. NYT journalist Adam Satariano tested Hubstaff with his boss. When Adam forgot to log out of Hubstaff, it sent his boss a screenshot of an internet exercise class trainer setting up in her living room. It felt “embarrassing and intrusive,” and made him afraid Hubstaff would send screenshots of his health or financial information.

According to the Accenture survey, fewer than a third of executives who are using worker surveillance said they feel confident they are using the data responsibly. More than half of the workers surveyed, or 64%, said that recent scandals over data privacy make them concerned that employee data might be at risk, too.

Provides inaccurate and misleading information

The promise of employee surveillance is that employees will waste less time on non-work activities because they know they’re being watched. And that bosses will have better, less biased data for performance evaluations. For example, Hubstaff provides a daily productivity score for each employee based on how much time they spent typing or moving the computer mouse.

The problem is obvious. Typing and moving a mouse is a really poor proxy for knowledge work. It doesn't count phone calls as work, for instance. If you’re in marketing, spending hours on Twitter might be work. If you’re a writer, you should be spending more time reading than writing. An engineer might spend time watching tutorials. In real life, all this is productive time. To an algorithm, however, it looks like goofing off.

Plus, anything can be gamed. “At a former job, I intentionally Googled things like ‘what to do about crushes on your boss’ in the hopes we had some sort of surveillance software,” software engineer Christine Price told me. “We either didn't, or he was a consummate professional.”

Misunderstands productivity

NYT journalist Adam said after he started the Hubstaff experiment, he started logging in early, reading fewer sports stories, and stopped reading private messages on his laptop to try to juice his productivity score. “After poking around the Hubstaff metrics, it was clear it did not capture when he was reporting and talking to sources,” his boss said. “It was thus irrelevant — at least to how we work.”

For sales teams or call centers, employee monitoring software may be able to provide a reasonably accurate productivity estimate. However, employers should still weigh this against the costs in terms of trust and engagement. But for knowledge workers, there’s really very little likelihood of a positive ROI on employee surveillance.

A better way to boost productivity

Employee engagement doesn’t come from assuming your employees are slacking off and need robot overlords constantly looking over their shoulders. Instead, assume your employees are highly motivated and looking for ways to get more done in less time. This builds mutual trust and makes it safe for employees to bring any blockers to their productivity to your attention.

For example, a lack of Focus Time is a huge blocker for many employees. It’s hard to get anything done when you’re constantly interrupted by Slack messages and meetings. We’re all in more meetings than ever and many of us are experiencing Zoom fatigue. A calendar audit may be in order for your employees.

Employee monitoring software can be tempting, especially in uncharted territory like widespread WFH. But it can’t yet do what it promises, and tends to alienate employees. Rather than implement something that creates a more adversarial relationship between workers and bosses, instead work with your employees to find ways to be more productive together.

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz

Cathy Reisenwitz is Head of Content at Clockwise where she oversees the Clockwise Blog and The Minutes Newsletter. She has covered business software for six years and has been published in Newsweek, Forbes, the Daily Beast, VICE Motherboard, Reason magazine, Talking Points Memo and other publications.

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