When is employee monitoring appropriate?

Day 371 of the home-working revolution: the rats have comfy new central London homes, small people keep asking me how to do long division and I fear I will never have a Friday fish-and-chip lunch at the pub again.

During the early days of lockdown, I received adverts from a range of companies offering innovative ways to ensure employee performance remained high when homeworking.

I did get a slight ego boost, thinking that the algorithm had identified me as the kind of responsible business hotshot who has employees. It turns out it was more likely a marketing push by these companies to get a slice of a skyrocketing market.

During April 2020, the first full month of lockdown, demand for employee-monitoring software increased by 108%. Much like remote conferencing or film-streaming services, employee monitoring was a good business to be in at the beginning of last year.

This week, the subject of employee monitoring has re-entered my newsfeed due to several articles in the Guardian, which discuss the plans for call centres to use webcam software to track staff movements, down to whether they are looking at their phones or if somebody else is in the room with them.

The growth of digital monitoring

In a way, employee monitoring is as old as the guys with whips who oversaw the construction of the pyramids. For the modern stone-shifter, work can be monitored through a range of technological solutions.

Common among these are keystroke checkers, counters for the frequency screensavers are activated and, as mentioned above, access to webcams on company devices. These aim to counter the fear that productivity would hit a cliff edge when staff were told to work from home last March.

However, concerns have been raised about the impact that intrusive monitoring may have on both the morale of staff and the level of trust they have in their employer to act responsibly.

A quiet arms race has been triggered between those who want to know what their staff are doing and those who are trying to stop them. Counter-monitoring solutions range from low-tech options, such as leaving a paperweight on a keyboard when popping out, to the supremely high-tech.

Wired Magazine reported on software called Presence Scheduler, which can set your Slack status as permanently active. It saw a large increase in sales and traffic – until Slack closed the coding loophole that allowed it to work. However, within weeks, Presence Scheduler was back up and running, exploiting other loopholes in the system.

Such stories have amused privacy rights nerds like me. Who would have thought people resent being spied on?

The trend highlights a breakdown of communication between managers and staff. The rush to implement tech solutions for employee productivity has sidelined soft skills that might have saved the company money and – for its workers – its reputation.

An issue of trust

I come from a world of data protection compliance. The most important message I push is the role of communication and culture.

Technological solutions have their place, gathering intelligence on both data processing and potential incidents. However, data protection only works if staff know what their data protection responsibilities are, know how to identify potential incidents and feel confident raising concerns.

When it comes to productivity monitoring, I see clear parallels. As with data protection, the main person responsible for raising any concerns ought to be the line manager.

In some organisations it may not be possible for the line manager to have a close working relationship with every person in their team (more on that below). However, by and large a good line manager should be able to identify and address productivity issues in the home just as they would the office.

This relationship starts from day one. If you don’t trust somebody to do the job without constant monitoring, then maybe they shouldn’t have been hired. Over time, trust is built through regular contact between the manager and their team. This also allows the manager to get a deep understanding of the work each member of their team is responsible for.

If projects are falling behind schedule, then the manager knows who to speak with to identify problems and the extra support that is required.

In an extremely small number of cases, further escalation may be needed – but in most, there is a good reason for the issues. It’s not usually a lazy staff member playing Call of Duty while on the clock. Communicating with staff to identify why projects are falling behind schedule is an awful lot cheaper than spying software.

In defence of monitoring – and how to do it right

Good communication between a manager and staff should always be the first step for ensuring productivity – but there are situations where some monitoring may be useful. Call centres, with their large teams and high staff turnover, have used monitoring software for years to keep customer queues as short as possible.

Due to the nature of call centres, home-based staff continue to have productivity monitored by automated systems. However, even here, experts such as Personnel Today and Call Centre Helper recognise the need for communication and relationship building to keep morale high.

For organisations with a similarly large and fluid staff structure, electronic monitoring could play a supporting role. If this is new for the business, there are a number of steps to take. These will ensure regulatory compliance and encourage staff to accept (or at least not actively undermine) its implementation.

  • Assess the benefit to the business against the impact on individual staff members

This should form part of a review into data protection compliance. Key questions include what personal data will be gathered, what clearly defined purpose it is being used for and what risks are involved in the processing of the data.

You should involve staff in this process and make sure they understand what is being proposed. This will give them an opportunity to both express concerns and identify parts of the process that sound good on paper but might not work on the ground.

  • Provide staff with a clear explanation of what will be monitored and for what purpose

This needs to go further than just updating the staff privacy notice; after all, most employees probably haven’t read it since their first day on the job. You must actively inform staff using any internal communications you have available to explain exactly what you are doing and why.

  • Conduct regular reviews

This should include questions about the efficacy of the system and any unintended consequences. For example, you might ask whether it is being used for the purpose for which it was designed, or if there are events that may impact the usefulness of the tool or require a change in the process.

You should also ensure that staff and line managers have a means of getting involved in this process and raising any concerns.

Finally, you must make sure that concerns are taken on board and either make changes to address them or provide clear feedback on the reason a change will not be made.

These steps will ensure that staff remain at the heart of any process to implement employee-monitoring software.

A last resort, not a quick fix

In a few specific situations there may be a role for employee monitoring software. However, its rapid spread over the last year is a cause for concern and is likely to be a source of tension between companies and their staff in the future.

Trust your staff to do the right thing. If you do need to implement monitoring software, then make sure the preparatory work is in place and welcome constructive challenges from those subject to it.

For more advice on protecting your staff and customers, you can follow DQM GRC on Twitter and LinkedIn.


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