A female private investigator, hanging out a car window, looking through binoculars for evidence

With most of the world’s workforce now working remotely, there’s been a massive uptick in the investment of surveillance software. According to Bloomberg, employers are “panic buying spy software” to keep tabs on those working from home. Interestingly, even before the coronavirus pandemic, Gartner forecasted that by 2020, 80% of companies would be monitoring employees using a range of tools and data sources.

Surveillance software, in particular, can monitor what remote workers do on their devices by tracking keystrokes, regularly taking screenshots and using other methods. While they’re meant to ensure productivity, surveillance tools may actually reduce productivity for some workers that don’t feel trusted by their managers.

Let’s take a closer look at the sudden rise in surveillance solutions, why bosses are buying them, and whether they should have a little more respect for employee privacy. 

Why Employers Are Deploying Surveillance Software

“Many employers are investing in surveillance software for remote workers as something of a knee-jerk reaction,” said John Moss, CEO of English Blinds, “because they are unsure how otherwise to ensure that workers are performing their full hours and that they are working on what they should be during this time.” 

In some cases, businesses believe that just letting employees know they’re being monitored has the psychological effect of keeping them productive. “Managers think that because an employee is sitting in front of his laptop, they will be more productive,” added Khalid Belghiti, founder of Scrypt. When you dig a little deeper, however, this implies that managers aren’t setting deadlines and milestones to track the direct impact an employee has on the business. “They're not expecting clear outcomes from their employees,” Belgihiti continued, “so they are tracking their presence instead.”

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The Impact of Surveillance Software

It makes sense to keep tabs on what your employees are doing. After all, you’re paying for their time and expertise. However, using tools to actually spy on their digital movements or time spent in front of a screen can encroach on employee privacy and cause distrust. “It can also serve to weaken relations between employers and employees,” Moss said, “the latter of whom feel spied upon and mistrusted.” It’s a form of micro-management that may do more harm than good for employees over the long term. “This causes anxiety and directly impacts upon how they work,” Moss continued, “and their normal, natural or established working methods and thought processes.”

Instead of surveillance software, Belghiti recommends setting goals, targets and expected outcomes and then giving employees the autonomy to achieve them. “The more responsibility and accountability they feel, the more empowered and productive they will be,” he explained. Moving away from micro-management practices frees up managers to work on other essential tasks that can lead to more productivity for everyone. And Moss agreed, “As well as measuring individual performance against benchmarks, [performance] should also be viewed in the wider scheme of things by comparison to others in the same role, or to a person’s pre-home working performance too.”

“It’s encouraging to see companies pay closer attention to the productivity of their workforce,” added Dr. Tommy Weir, founder and CEO of enaible, “but measuring productivity and success of employees shouldn’t be done by the number of emails sent or by messages via Zoom or Slack.” He believes instead of surveillance software, employers should be investing in AI technologies. “AI captures the complexity of individual, nuanced productivity of employees and can give leaders timely and actionable recommendations (i.e. identify where and how time can be saved or better used) to improve productivity, output and business success.” Rather than using software to reprimand employees, AI can enable organizations to leverage data to inspire and train employees to work more efficiently.

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Where Is the Middle Ground?

The benefit of surveillance software for employers is obvious — it guarantees that employees are working when they say they are. “For employees, assuming that their surveillance finds them ticking all of the right boxes,” Moss explained, “it leaves them free of suspicion or questioning as to their activities during the working day.” But Moss was quick to add, “neither of these ‘benefits’ actually make more money for the company, nor support the employee in achieving this.”

Even if surveillance software isn’t right for most employers, that doesn’t mean employees should operate in the dark either. “For remote work, you still need tools to collaborate and share your presence,” Belghiti said. That means organizations should invest in software that can aid collaboration and empower remote workers to be more productive at home. For example, Belghiti recommends Slack for open communication and project management tools like Trello or Asana to keep employees on track. “They're all based on trust and not surveillance,” Belghiti explained, “and that's what work should be about in my opinion.”