Is it ever OK to snoop on your employees?

Blaire Palmer considers the complications and ethics of emerging tech that allows employers to snoop on employees working remotely.

30th Apr 2021
CEO That People Thing Ltd
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Wearable tech that tells your boss where you are at all times, apps that alert your employer when you send a personal email during working hours, and team-working platforms that give you the option to say whether you’re available or busy are being heavily promoted right now as we look ahead to the future of work.

A recent discussion on Any Answers about a new app called Sneek has shown that you lot are not minded to sign up for a surveillance service for your employees as we enter this new world.

But our current disdain for such services, which allow you to monitor staffs’ email, keep people on permanent video mode and ‘hit people up’ (that’s the language they use at Sneek) when they’ve said they are busy because, you know, maybe they aren’t, could become normalized over the coming years.

How do you decide whether the tech is supporting hybrid working or is just a case of surveillance-culture gone mad?

Industrial Age mentality

When time and motion studies were the latest breakthrough in management thinking, the machine was king. The longer you ran the machine, the more productivity you got. Any time the machine is offline you were losing money. That thinking influenced how we saw human productivity. People should be more like machines. Any time they weren’t packing this thing in to that box we were losing money.

However, today most of us do jobs where that doesn’t apply. We need time to think. We need time to rest our brain. We want to switch from one kind of task to another.

You might be able to mindlessly put this thing in to that box for 8 hours straight but that doesn’t mean you can mindfully work on solving complex challenges, manage interpersonal relationships or generate new ideas for eight hours straight.

Before thinking it’s a good idea to monitor people’s activity we need to reject these 19th Century notions. But breaking the link between hours and output continues to be a challenge. We might completely buy the principle but most of us feel fidgety when a colleague says they spent the afternoon in the garden ‘thinking’ while potting on their tomato plants.

Invest in the tech only after you’ve broken the connection between hours and output or you will perpetuate the production line principle that hours equal effectiveness.

Communication and connection

None of us really know how to do this new hybrid way of working. You can’t count the last year as a pilot as this was a temporary and enforced situation muddied by school closures, lack of ‘third places’ to work like co-working spaces and coffee shops, high levels of stress due to social isolation outside of work and the economic fallout of the pandemic and associated lockdowns. 

During the pandemic we’ve posited a hypothesis that the office is good as a social space, for creative collaboration and to reinforce culture. We’ve found communication and connection difficult with people at home so we’re delighted when tech offers us a fix which enhances communication and connection with remote workers. But we haven’t tested the hypothesis under more normal circumstances.

Despite this, many companies are making bold claims about how they will work in future such as PWC who are saying ‘start when you want, leave when you like’ or Goldman Sachs who say work from home won’t work for them. Whatever companies claim now, I would treat with suspicion. Now isn’t the time for firm commitments but to be in curious learning mode.

As office spaces reopen we need to take a test and learn attitude, not committing to any particular way of working until we’ve tried new approaches, lived with them for a bit to iron out the kinks and then iterated and adapted.

Introducing tech to monitor people is an attempt at creating certainty. If people expect more flexibility the easiest option is to give them what they say they want but also track their every move. Done. Let’s move on.

But none of this gives future new ways of working time to evolve, keeping us stuck in current ways of thinking about people and productivity. Resist the temptation for quick fixes until you really understand what works best for your business and the people within it.

Beyond Zoom

Having said that, there is certainly room for technological innovation that enhances the experience of working remotely. Platforms like Remo, for instance, enable you to create a virtual office space, complete with tables and chairs, breakout rooms and social spaces.

Like all tech of this type, Remo could be abused to monitor people if a company is stuck in the Industrial mindest based on presenteeism versus outputs. But this and other platforms like it could provide a fourth alternative to home, office, or a ‘third place’ with many of the advantages of the office without leaving your lounge.

As we begin to understand how 21st Century work gets done, how to combine work and personal life in a more blended and healthy way and the longer-term implications of this weird year, we need to stay open to new tools and new habits even if, at first, we reject them as distasteful or unnecessary.

But before we jump on the latest technology, let’s make sure we’ve examined our hardwired attitudes.

As ever, it’s the motive of the user which can turn technology from a force for good in to a force for evil.

You can listen to Blaire Palmer and her co-host, Natasha Wallace, discuss the future of work, leadership, culture and well-being, inspired by stories in the news, on their podcast, The Human Revolutionaries Show.

Replies (3)

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By johnjenkins
04th May 2021 10:23

Not good.
A happy worker is a productive worker. A worker who is being snooped on will work on ways to circumvent or make sure they are busy so extra tasks can't be stowed upon them. Then they will not be producing the work they should be.
Trackers on vehicles are slightly different as they just make sure the workers are where they should be but no more intrusive.
If I look at my own work patterns they go in stages, so I assume others are similar.

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By indomitable
04th May 2021 13:19

If a company has to resort to this sort of thing then maybe they need to recruit better. Never believed in the heavy hand of an employer. In my opinion employees always work best when trusted by their employer. Never see the need for this sort of thing unless an employee is suspected of a serious offence such as fraud

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By Ian McTernan CTA
04th May 2021 14:08

'Invest in the tech only after you’ve broken the connection between hours and output or you will perpetuate the production line principle that hours equal effectiveness.'

Much of our profession still rely on timesheets and hourly billing so they can charge clients what it actually took. A lot of the work is fairly mindless number crunching.

How do you propose to square the circle?

Also, not everyone is a self starter and most people would prefer to be lead rather than to lead.

For many people working solely from home longer term just simply won't work as humans are generally social creatures and longer term mental health issues may arise.

For those that are in positions where taking a step back and doing something else helps them make better decisions your advice works.

As for monitoring staff, companies need to tread lightly and rather than go big brother take a more measured approach. Sending an email during work time? Not an issue unless it's dozens. Running their second job or their ebay account during work hours- generally not good, but you might find they are the most productive member of the team.

The important issue is to adapt to your circumstances and do things that encourage your employees to work effectively. For some that might mean scheduling regular zoom calls to check on progress, for others it might mean giving them lead on a project and leaving them to get on with it.

Always on video links? NO.

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