Is There Someone Watching?

boss watching worker
In a global survey of more than 800 organizations, 48 percent reported they are now using employee monitoring software to assess performance and productivity.

The growing use of employee monitoring software could backfire, HR expert warns

Do you have that odd feeling of being watched?

In a global survey of more than 800 organizations, 48% reported they are now using employee monitoring software to assess performance and productivity. The latest technology can track your emails, phone calls, keystrokes and mouse clicks. Some employers even use a function that takes screenshots of what’s on your computer and webcam photos to see if you’re actually there.

Michael C. Sturman, professor and chair of the Department of Human Resource Management in the School of Management and Labor Relations (SMLR), says the software became more popular during the pandemic. But there are growing concerns that it fails to capture work that happens away from the computer – like thinking – and that it improperly punishes workers for taking routine breaks like using the bathroom.

In the second episode of SMLR’s new podcast, A Third of Your Life, Sturman warns that employers could see higher turnover and bad publicity if they continue down this path. The following is an abridged transcript of the episode.

Many blue-collar workers have lived with productivity metrics for a long time, but now white-collar workers are under the microscope too. What changed?

In part, what changed is that COVID happened. There are many more employees now working from home, creating this general fear that people might not be working as hard as perhaps the company wants them to. There is also increasing pressure for greater employee productivity, whether you’re a doctor or a lawyer or a banker. It's about trying to get more for the same amount of money out of your employees.

What do you think of the different software features: email tracking, phone tracking, keystroke counters, screenshots, webcam photos?

They are different metrics about how someone is working. The real question is, do those metrics actually relate to how an employee performs? If you measure something, employees will typically do more of it. So if you get paid by sending more emails or clicking the mouse or typing more, you're going to get people to do those things. Is this really related to what the employee is expected to do or what the employee actually needs to do for their job?

What do employers ultimately do with this information they collect?

It's really going to depend on the employer, but this kind of information could be used to build a case for dismissing an employee or to influence a person’s performance.

Are there better ways to manage performance and productivity?

Better management would involve setting goals for employees and being able to check whether those goals are achieved. It involves looking at broader metrics of how the employee is performing—again, more related to results associated with the job and not just the simple things that you can measure because the technology now allows it.

In addition to termination, what are the negative outcomes for workers?

First of all, workers just don't like it. It could contribute to higher stress and that can cause problems. I also worry about different marginalized groups. Maybe you don't live in an area that has broadband at home, and therefore you have less reliable service, which could make it look like you're not working. Individuals with disabilities may have times that they need to be away from their computer for different reasons.

What is the risk to organizations?

The risk is largely going to be turnover, because if you don't treat your employees with respect, there are many opportunities—particularly right now—for them to find other jobs. There certainly also is the potential for bad PR and social media. "Oh, this company is always monitoring me. They're taking screenshots. They yell at me when I'm away from the computer for four minutes." All of this can add up to loss of talent and loss of potential talent for the future.

Click here to listen to the full episode on your favorite podcast platform.