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What Is the Value of ‘Tattle Tech’ in the Modern Workplace?

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Employee monitoring technology was a bit controversial before the pandemic. Who likes to think that their boss is watching their every digital move? But these tools have become more popular, tracking physical location, phone transcripts, meeting activity, and biometric data, ushering in a new techno-dystopia that is losing companies millions in failed attempts at control. 

Most bosses and business leaders think more employee reviews and monitoring increase worker productivity. Turns out, that is not the case. A Gallup poll found only 14 percent of employees said their reviews inspire them to improve. Traditional performance reviews and other forms of feedback result in lowered performance about one-third of the time, according to a study published in Psychological Bulletin. Worse yet, setting up and conducting traditional employee evaluations requires hundreds of hours of time for organizations’ most valuable employees, costing millions. Automating employee monitoring and reviews could cut out much of the administrative cost, but it’s unclear if technology is capable of overcoming the other negative impacts. Terminology around the practice is even hotly contested. For privacy advocates, remote monitoring is a euphemism for corporate surveillance, itself a euphemism for ‘tattle tech.’

Research from YouGov found 20 percent of businesses are now using technology trackers to monitor employees’ online activity. One in seven U.K. workers reported increased monitoring and surveillance at their workplace, according to a Trade Union Congress report. A separate report by Top10VPN shows the use of employee monitoring software jumped 50 percent this year as workplace strategies adapted to the rise of remote work. Global consulting firm Accenture’s own survey found 62 percent of organizers were leveraging new tools to collect data on employee performance. 

A Gartner survey found that “half of large companies use monitoring techniques on their employees” which increased from 30 percent in 2015. Twenty-two percent of them capture employee movement data, 17 percent monitor work-computer usage, and 16 percent monitor Microsoft Outlook or calendar usage data. Gartner expected that 80 percent of companies would be monitoring employees by the end of 2020.

Employee monitoring isn’t new, offices are designed with plenty of glass for sightlines, time cards have been used for centuries, cameras for decades. The latest form of remote monitoring technology is taking things a step further. Employers can track keyboard data and mouse movement to know when you’re typing and how quickly, they can access your webcam to know when you’re looking at the screen. Technology can tap into your computer’s microphone and speakers to record ambient noise. Smartphones apps can track an employee’s physical location. Companies have been tracking internet history and emails for years. Amazon made headlines for its intense employee monitoring practices that have some workers peeing in bottles to keep their metrics up. The line between monitoring and surveillance is blurring rapidly, taking employee privacy, trust, and productivity down with it. 

“In general, you have very, very, very light protections, if any, for employee privacy,” Emory Roane, privacy counsel at the nonprofit organization Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, told the Seattle Times. 

The lack of privacy and employee rights around monitoring means companies can track whatever they want, as long as it’s detailed in an employment contract and on a company device. Workers can refuse the job, but if they accept, that’s about the end of privacy protections, unless you live in one of a select few states with laws against certain forms of employee surveillance. Employers may find these tools useful but they come at a steep cost. 

For years businesses have been working to build better employee-employer relationships to help with burnout and retention. Employee monitoring is antithetical to those goals. Accenture found 52 percent of employees believe mishandling data erodes trust, a major problem when only 30 percent of executives are confident data is used responsibly. Remote monitoring increases stress levels for employees at a time when mental health is suffering during a global crisis and many workers feel they have the standing to push back in a labor market that favors workers for the first time in years. The type of surveillance technology steamrolling workers rights’ views my employers as unreasonable and intrusive, according to research from the University of British Columbia. 

Even before the rise of remote work ushered in the wave of employee surveillance technology, businesses were facing backlash over aggressive monitoring. Every new technical development reignites the debate over privacy concerns. In 2019 Google employees made headlines when they went public with their backlash to spy tools. Microsoft faced similar backlash when it added a ‘productivity score’ for employees using its Microsoft 365 platform. PwC was in hot water when it was revealed they were developing facial recognition technology to monitor employees. Fujitsu developed a tool that can measure muscle movements in the face to track concentration during meetings. 

Ultimately the conversation comes down to trust, which has been rapidly eroding during the course of the pandemic. Employers can’t shake the thought that employees working remotely actually aren’t working at all. Coworkers are convinced they’re the ones doing all the work. A lack of in-person interactions has many filling in the unknowns with negative assumptions about colleagues’ behavior. There’s plenty of valid reasons to miss a meeting when working from home, but too often bosses think the worst. Remote monitoring technology can help fill in the knowledge gaps about employee activity but creates other issues. 

“There is a reason why we have offices. It’s not by accident,” Brad Miller, the CEO of Awareness Technologies, which sells software that can record employees’ screens, told Fast Company.  “There is a reason we have managers and supervisors: so they can manage and supervise people that are sitting generally in front of them in the office.”

“Monitoring is interpreted by employees as not being trusted to do their work, impinging on their sense of control over their work and their trust of their manager and organization as a whole,” Anita Keller, assistant professor of behavioral and social sciences at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who is leading an ongoing study on the impact of Covid-19 on work, wellbeing, and performance, told the BBC. “When leaders start to monitor, employees are less motivated and feel less responsible for their work.” 

Remote monitoring platforms bill themselves as productivity enhancers but there’s little independently reviewed evidence to suggest that’s the case. The tech may monitor productivity, but they don’t increase it. More than anything remote monitoring is a form of micromanagement. Just because an employee is working doesn’t necessarily mean they’re being productive. The problem is remote monitoring relies on extrinsic motivation to increase productivity, which behavioral psychologists have found to be far less effective than intrinsic motivation. Relying on extrinsic motivation for productivity is a high-speed expressway leading directly to employee burnout and employee turnover, erasing any gains the ‘productivity’ software may have temporarily made. It’s no coincidence that Amazon, a company with the business worlds’ most aggressive employee surveillance programs, has a staggering annual turnover rate of 150 percent. To put that into perspective, Amazon is losing about 3 percent of its hourly workforce every week. 

Remote monitoring software and employee surveillance are only capable of measuring input. Hours, keystrokes, concentration, calls, clicks. They are only inputs to the process. Employers utilizing employee surveillance are monitoring how the sausage is made rather than inspecting the quality of the sausage. Bad managers are focused on input. Good managers look at the output, what workers are actually producing. When focused on input, things start to take longer because employees know they will be judged on the level of input. Focusing on output speeds things up when employees know they’re being judged on what they produce, not how long it takes to produce. 

Remote monitoring software stands in stark contrast to basic common sense. People do their best work when they feel appreciated. When you’re suspicious of employees, they start to feel mistreated. Just like how you cannot hack productivity with office design, you cannot hack productivity with surveillance software. Business owners may enjoy the delusion that increasing productivity is as simple as installing software, but that’s a fantasy. Increasing productivity is the same basic mix of difficult ingredients it always has been; communication, trust, appreciation, and compensation. 

Business owners and office managers are always looking for the latest productivity hack, the latest iteration may be the most invasive yet. Performance reviews are not a replacement for a good office environment. Remote monitoring is outsourcing management, lowering its overall quality. Good management, done best with face-to-face communication, is still the most effective strategy. What good managers understand is that employee productivity fluctuates and that’s ok. It’s absurd to expect the best from your employees every single day. Building trust and appreciation, instead of using remote monitoring to strip it away, produces the type of extrinsic motivation that can actually make a difference in employee productivity.

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