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Responding to the Challenge of Employee Monitoring

Today's post comes to us from Workforce Institute board member David Creelman.

Thanks to new technology we are able to monitor employees' activities like never before. From an analytics point of view, that's fantastic and we can easily anonymize the data to protect employees' privacy. Unfortunately, the main use of employee monitoring has the opposite intent–it's meant to invade the employee's privacy. What should we do about that?

Currently, the main means of employee monitoring is to take pictures of employee screens every 15 minutes or so. That monitoring will allow you to check if the employee is snoozing (e.g., check to see if the same page is on the screen with no changes) or is doing non-work-related activity (e.g., looking at Instagram).

The reason for this monitoring is straightforward, managers don't trust their employees. The downside of monitoring is also straightforward: employees hate it - and why wouldn't they? Does anyone enjoy feeling untrustworthy?

At The Workforce Institute, we've recently released new research on the topic of trust in the modern workplace and the results provide hard evidence of why employee monitoring can potentially be so damaging:

  • Over half of employees say that trust directly impacts their: sense of belonging (64%), career choices (58%), mental health (55%) and daily effort (68%). If your employees don't feel trusted they won't be as happy, loyal, healthy or productive.
  • 24% of employees said they left a company because they did not feel trusted. Low trust drives expensive turnover, something your organization does not want or need.
  • 22% of employees said they did not make a referral because they did not trust their company. So, employees who don't feel trusted aren't going to recommend the organization to friends and acquaintances leaving said organization with a smaller talent pool to draw from.

Given these facts, it becomes clear that the last thing an organization wants is to have employees who feel they are not being trusted. How then do we approach employee monitoring? Let me jump right in with my own checklist of ideas on how to approach the issue of when and how to use these monitoring technologies:

  • Ideally, managers should be able to judge an employee's performance based on their output, not by looking over their shoulder every 15 minutes. HR should push hard to get managers to explain why they can't assess output before they allow monitoring.
  • Monitoring can be used as a last resort. The software can be installed but the screenshots will only be viewed if an investigation is launched. If a manager says, “This employee's performance seems very low, I'd like you to review their screenshots”, then that will be a lot more acceptable to employees than if they feel they are always being watched.
  • If you are using monitoring software, let employees know that they won't be punished for normal activities. If a few Instagram screenshots show up that's no big deal. If the employee is spending hours a day on Instagram, then that's another matter.

This leads us to the question we probably should have asked at the beginning: “What are we trying to solve for?” Are we trying to make managers feel more in control? Are we worried about widespread slacking off? Are we concerned about a few problem employees? Being clear about this will point you in the right direction.

The other question you need to ask is whether the cure (constant monitoring) is worse than the disease (some degree of slacking off from work).

There's not a simple answer to these questions but they do need to be asked. Employee monitoring may be a necessary tool for remote workforces; just don't implement it without thinking hard about how to do it right and the impact it may have on trust in your organization.

Do you feel trusted by your employer or not? How has this positively or negatively affected your working life? Tell us about it in the comments!

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