Illustration showing image of eyes with text Big Brother Is Watching You

It's Time to Take Another Look at Employee Monitoring

June 03, 2021 Digital Workplace
Lance Haun
By Lance Haun

Does it always feel like somebody’s watching you?

I don’t want to throw it back to the '80s, but I do have 1984 on my mind, or more specifically, the novel "1984." Big Brother is watching employees in some obviously invasive and other less invasive ways. It’s widespread, it’s increased since the pandemic started, and it’s worth considering whether it’s appropriate in an age when employers are getting invited into homes. 

But first let’s back up a bit. Exactly how pervasive is employee monitoring at work?

Employee Monitoring By the Numbers

Monitoring employees at work has exploded in recent years. In a Gartner survey from 2019, more than 50% of large companies surveyed admitted they were using some type of nontraditional employee monitoring, up from 30% just four years earlier. The analyst firm characterizes nontraditional monitoring as analyzing the text in the emails they send, social media presence, or using biometric data to understand how often you’re using spaces like a desk or conference room. Gartner predicted that by the end of 2020, about 80% of companies would be monitoring employees using these types of new tools and data sources. 

They had no idea how right they were going to be. 

The pandemic made it easier than ever to track employees. With the shift to remote work, our interactions became digital by default. Digital monitoring in particular has become commonplace. When we went digital, automatic monitoring via normal productivity apps could be flipped on with a switch — if they weren’t already on by default.

It would be creepy if your employer put a camera on the water cooler, along with an RFID scanner that kept track of who talked around it, how often and when. Yet, that level of granularity with digital tools is already here. 

Related Article: The Successes and Failures of the Remote Workplace (So Far)

Do Employers Deserve to Be Trusted?

GPS trackers on delivery trucks or key cards to access an office have been around for ages, but those are different levels of potential monitoring. For one, their primary purpose is to track and secure property, not people. Six-figure trucks and rooms that house millions of dollars in equipment are worth keeping an eye on.

It’s also obvious that interaction is tracked. Someone will know you opened the door. Someone will know if you go off route. Sometimes it will be actively monitored, or more likely, it will be something that organizations will look at if something comes up. 

That might be partially why employees have been less than anxious about monitoring. Over 90% of employees are open to the collection of data on them and their work — but it comes with a big caveat. That’s only if they believe that it helps boost their productivity, wellbeing or provides other benefits. 

On the flip side, employees are skeptical of employers' ability to protect their data, with that same study reporting that 64% say that recent scandals over the misuse of data makes them concerned about their employee data.

And they should be. The survey reported that fewer than a third of C-level executives were very confident that they were using employee monitoring data responsibly. 

While employees in the EU are protected by laws like GDPR, the U.S. takes more of a Wild West approach, with some jurisdictions allowing widespread monitoring without disclosing it to employees.

Related Article: How to Protect Employee Privacy and Ensure Data Security With a Remote Workforce

An Opportunity to Do Better

Companies like ActivTrak and Prodoscore promise ease of use for administrators while unlocking new opportunities to track activity in the cloud better than you’ve ever imagined. These tools allow organizations to track as much, or as little, as they like given their broad privacy policies. 

But employers should take a step back before just rolling with tools like these. Consider two factors that should give you pause.

First, employees have proven productive working from home, and it’s not just driven by pandemic-fueled fear. Those big spikes of unhealthy productivity when everyone feared for their job actually flattened out, but overall it's still higher. 

Second, employees have already shared moments of forced intimacy in a space once closed off to their organization. They need more boundaries, not passive tools to push increased productivity. They need to know if they are doing online grocery shopping in between a full day of meetings, companies aren’t going to be microanalyzing every stray website and moment of unproductivity.

Of course, hybrid and remote work arrangements will always lead some employees to take advantage or for managers to drive toward more monitoring to be able to check in. I suggest a counterintuitive solution: Talk with them. You don’t need fancy software to tell you if someone is doing their job at the office or remotely. 

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