Do we really need employee monitoring?

Working for someone, in most cases, is one party selling some of their time to another party. With this in mind, it’s understandable that the buyer would like to double check that they’re getting their money’s worth, right?

This is where we are when it comes to the debate about privacy at work.

So what is the issue? When your boss wants to monitor you when you’re working from home, they have to install something on your computer / device. Nothing personal should happen on that work machine right? Well, the idea that people can separate their work time from personal time is a myth. In fact research suggests that we’re most productive if we’re taking regular hourly breaks. If Johnny’s taking breaks every hour to browse his favourite websites or to chat to friends and family, Johnny is probably using the same computer.

The global research advisory firm, Gartner, estimated in May 2019 that 80% of large companies will be engaged in tech-based employee monitoring by 2020 (think analysing emails, relationship graphs, biometrics etc). I think it’s fair to say that the pandemic has probably boosted these numbers. These tools usually make their way into companies with the promise of higher productivity and lower overhead for management, especially given the collective global lockdown we’re all currently experiencing.

Consider the case of the marketing company 98 Buck Social that requires their employees to install software that takes screenshots of their computer every 10 minutes. Chris Heuwetter who runs the company mentioned (to both the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times) that he was worried about how his company would fair if everyone is working from home. Mr Heuwetter is not alone, companies that provide employee monitoring software are booming with thousands of companies queuing for their services.

So what are employers worried about? They don’t want to be robbed of the time they’re paying for. This is fair. Mr Heuwetter signed his company up to monitoring when he saw that his employees were logging in later than they were showing up to work. Similarly, Barclays came under fire recently for implementing a system that warned their employees when their breaks were too long while working from home.

It turns out, unsurprisingly, that if you try to chastise your employees for not behaving according to your monitoring metric, they will hate it. On the other hand, the same research found that if your monitoring is clearly intended to learn more about employees in order to help them, then they might benefit from it. But this is about a manager being involved, being able to interpret the data correctly, and not using the data as a one-stop-shop for their decisions. All of this requires a present-minded and sharp manager who is aware that monitoring tools are flawed, partial metrics that are at best, a poor proxy for performance.

We don’t have AI that can understand why someone is unproductive yet since “productivity” is not always easily measured. Of course, some firms will have you believe that, indeed, we do have machines that can tell us exactly why our workers are unproductive. As I write this article, I class these claims under the aptly-named term “snake-oil AI”. Arvind Narayanan from Princeton has a great slide deck explaining how to spot these things. To give an example, maybe your company uses the time spent at a particular company domain name, as a metric for productivity. Then if I leave my screen on that domain and go take a two hour walk, the magic AI will think I’m super productive.

So what? What if your boss is over your shoulder (so to speak) during the work-day? You’ll likely start hating your job, will become progressively worse at it, and your boss will lose money. Research suggests that once negative feedback is conveyed based on a monitoring tool, employees will then distrust both the manager and the tool. This then leads to a feedback loop that degrades trust over time. Besides, there is no smart enough tool out there that a frustrated employee can’t dupe. We’ve all seen software that moves your mouse cursor to trick these systems.

The point is, every moment I spend thinking about how to trick your software, is a moment that I am not focusing on our business.

For businesses, before jumping on the bandwagon and looking for reviews of the best monitoring software, it’s worth asking three questions:

  1. What exactly are the concerns that I have?
  2. If the software was not available, how would I address my concerns?
  3. If I use this software, am I incentivising the wrong thing?

Today we are in a situation where almost everyone is working from home. Employees and managers are putting their mutual trust to the test. Employee monitoring software can be useful, but it can also very easily be a crutch that poisons our working relationships, leading to lower productivity and worse health for businesses and people. Don’t use it if you don’t know exactly why it’s good for you. Maybe try an employee survey instead.