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It’s the era of hyper surveillance. Are we all being watched at work?

  • Publish Date: Posted almost 2 years ago
  • Author: Emma Richardson
hyper surveillance - handle recruitment
In our last People Experience Newsletter poll, I asked if it was okay for managers to track employee activity on work communication channels. The poll received more votes than ever - and the overwhelming answer (81%)? No!

Monitoring employees during work isn’t a new thing, but developments in technologies, and the pandemic push towards home-working means that new technologies of spying on employees have crept in. Just recently, Zoom announced that it was undertaking research into AI software to monitor human behaviour during video calls (a move that 28 human rights groups have strongly pushed against). To put it into numbers: pre-pandemic, 10% of large businesses had spying software, and within three years this is expected to reach 70%. 

Which made me wonder… How many people have experienced being digitally tracked at work? What is the effect on morale, and productivity? And is there any real benefit for the business? 

I spoke to people who (anonymously) told me their tales, including someone who had previously worked for a tech company with an interesting approach to surveillance:

‘About a week into starting, I was called up to the founder’s office and asked why I wasn't using the virtual desktop (I had some software that wasn’t compatible).

‘I looked at his screen and realised that he was routinely logging onto employees' computers from the comfort of his office and watching everything that they were doing… I quickly realised it wasn't the culture for me and quit!’

Other examples were less obvious, but still left a sour taste with employees:

`We had a slack channel called 'daily priorities', every morning we all had to share one or two things we were working on as a priority that day - with the entire company!

‘Our CEO originally pitched it as a way to be "collaborative" but our employees did not see it that way, particularly when the CEO would check every morning and make a note of those who didn't do it.’

To get to the bottom of things, I spoke to Ian MacRae, work psychologist and author of Dark Social: Understanding the Darker Side of Work, Personality and Social Media, who said that his research has found a strong correlation between excessive surveillance and a lack of productivity. 

Ian MacRae

‘A big issue is that surveillance encourages ‘looking busy’, instead of actually being productive in a way that works for you. On top of this, people who are aware they are being watched often struggle to focus their attention on anything else!’

As long as people give their informed consent (often buried in contracts), it is legal. So is there any potential benefit? MacRae thinks it needs to be ‘employee-led’. ‘People might use surveillance tools to monitor their own productivity, e.g. time spent on a specific app, and this is something that could extend to work, too - but I think in order to avoid a culture of micromanagement, it HAS to be led by the employee not the employer.’

So, what are the takeaways for business leaders?

Tanya Whitehead

Tanya Whitehead, Founding Consultant at TalentWise, says she has worked with clients to create some clarity around the ‘hyper-surveilled’, ‘always on’ culture that can form when using new comms channels.

‘We put together a playbook on how to approach channels like Slack, with clear guidelines around timings when replying to messages. Everyone knows how to approach emails, but the ‘always available’ nature of other channels can feel invasive. We wanted to focus any measurements on outputs, not inputs - and give explicit permission for people not to need to give an instant response.’

‘Culturally, I think the problem can come when business leaders put these rules in because of one or two poor performers when in reality the focus needs to be on upskilling managers to deal with performance issues as they arise. Don’t build your culture around the bad eggs!’ 

Shamal Kumal

Shamal Kumal, Internal Communications Manager at ASOS, agrees: ‘In this era of hyper accessibility, explicit communication, and best practice guidelines are needed to ensure psychological safety. I worked at Dennis, and we had a channel matrix which made it explicitly clear exactly what each communication channel would be used for.’ 

It all boils down to trust, clarity, and being specific about how you measure performance. As MacRae states there’s a crucial ‘difference between surveillance, which is blanket operation, and oversight, which is a more targeted and flexible structure for dealing with potential problems.’ 

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