a wall of security cameras looking downward
PHOTO: Lianhao Qu on Unsplash

In the debate about the use and deployment of employee surveillance technology to monitor workers, little is said about whether it is actually needed or not or what enterprises may be able to use as an alternative.

According to one survey by an IT security company, there has been a 63% average increase in the purchase of employee surveillance software since March 2021 compared to the pre-pandemic average. This is a 24% increase compared to the nine months prior. A recent report from tech media site The Information spotlighted some of the tactics tech giant Google uses to spy on employees. Taking a screenshot or looking up COBRA health insurance costs can put Googlers in the crosshairs of the company's security team.

Clearly, employee surveillance is on the rise. Scratch a little bit further, though, and the problems that companies are using surveillance technology to solve really seem to be more than problems with productivity and whether workers are actually working while they're away from the office.

It's actually a familiar debate. Years ago, companies started discussing the use of enterprise content management technology to track content only to find that poor work planning and lack of strategy were the obvious weaknesses rather than the technology. For many companies looking at surveillance technology, the problem is the same. Surveillance is not the issue, but rather what can be done in its stead.

The Culture Problem at the Heart of Employee Surveillance

Monitoring employees is "old world" thinking that is not fit for purpose when the future is uncertain, said Lars Hyland, chief learning officer at Totara Learning, an enterprise learning, engagement and performance management technology firm headquartered in Wellington, N.Z. Companies need flexible, adaptable people to respond to unexpected change, he said. Rather than invest in surveillance technology, enterprise leaders need to look at how to build trust.

“Those jobs that can be meaningfully monitored in terms of activity time, transactions processed, calls made, etc., are likely going to be automated anyway so investments should be made in that direction” Hyland said.

Having flexible and adaptable people able to respond to change means that companies need to have a collaborative, psychologically safe working environment, not a fearful Big Brother-style dystopian culture. Recent analysis from RedThread Research found that psychological safety has fallen by 17% through the pandemic, largely due to inadequate management practices and inflexible tools and technology. Failing to recognize this shift will lead talented staff to walk out the door, or log off permanently, if working remotely.

“The big resignation that many companies are experiencing is being driven by poor working cultures that diminish people, rather than supporting and developing them,” Hyland said.

Related Article: How Your Company Can Avoid the Great Resignation

Focus on Positive Motivators at Work

The alternative, he said, is to focus on what actually motivates people in the workplace. They're looking for the opportunity to improve and master their skills, a clear sense of shared purpose that aligns with their personal values, and a work environment that offers autonomy, the space and time to do their jobs well. In short, organizations should focus on effectiveness over efficiency.

To support these motivators requires a more integrated technology infrastructure that brings together learning, engagement and performance management systems into one aligned support framework, personalized to individual needs. These "talent experience" platforms are designed to help businesses navigate the choppy waters of an exponentially changing world.

“Going forward, trust and guidance beats command and control every time,” Hyland said.

Related Article: The Connection Between Learning and Employee Experience

Surveillance's Impact on Employee Engagement

If relationships between workers, managers and the C-suite are always complex, the addition of workplace surveillance will make things worse, creating distrust and eventually leading to attrition. Remote work has already made it challenging to maintain employee engagement challenging, said Geoff Webb, vice president of solutions at Charlotte, N.C.-based isolved.

When leaders surveil their employees, they inadvertently communicate the message that employee clicks and keystrokes are more important than the rest of their work day. Employee engagement becomes far more difficult when employees worry the words they are typing and speaking are being monitored by the company.

“We’re seeing now that companies who have strong internal communication and trust within their teams not only retain employees but have employees that actively recommend their company to others, attracting other top talent," Webb said. "This is so crucial right now amid the ongoing fight to attract and retain the best people."

The voice of the employee is the one that matters at the end of the day, and companies must prioritize workplace values like transparency and trust over surveillance metrics, he added.

Related Article: It's Time to Take Another Look at Employee Monitoring

Be Transparent About Surveillance

While employee surveillance software was clearly a top investment during the extended period of remote work, it’s hard to fully understand how ongoing surveillance will affect company culture, including talent attraction and retention, over the long term, said Zain Jaffer, founder of San Francisco-based Zain Ventures, an investor in tech companies.

To understand the difference between companies that succeed and those that fail, it's important to understand the nuances in how they're applying surveillance software. Jaffer said the important pillars of company culture are trust, autonomy and agility. Research shows trust plays a key role in workplace satisfaction, reducing risk perception and stress among employees.

So, if employee surveillance technology is to be helpful, it can’t come with the side effect of diminished trust. This is only possible if the goals of the surveillance strategy are agreed upon and shared among team members and team leads alike.

“Using covert, productivity-related tracking to vet the effectiveness of one employee against another, or to try to ‘see’ what your team is doing when they’re working from home, is more likely to take a costly toll on company culture—the effects and costs of which we might not yet understand,” Jaffer said. 

Spend That Surveillance Money Elsewhere

There are a number of technological investments that can offer far better improvements to a company’s net operating income than preventing employees from enjoying a 5-minute YouTube break. Artificial intelligence is one.

AI, Jaffer said, can use predictive analytics to streamline a company's operation and the value-add quickly makes up for the initial spend. AI-empowered productivity can almost always go beyond any time saved (and trust lost) from trying to micro-manage employee behavior.

Beyond that, it’s crucial that employers focus more on the intrinsic motivation of team members rather than the performance assessments and corrections they’re able to put in place. The numbers speak for themselves: 4 million Americans quit their jobs in July 2021.

“When we reflect on this moment in history, ‘The Great Resignation’ is the tagline we’ll use to understand what happened right after the initial economic collapse brought on by the pandemic,” Jaffer said.

While there are many factors at play, it’s clear that some of workplace norms are due for improvement. Before investing in surveillance software, employers should think carefully and critically about whether employee surveillance is one of those areas for change.