Long-term remote work has necessitated questions about monitoring employee productivity. Is it possible to practice ethical surveillance?
Remote working is no short-term arrangement that will dissipate when society reopens — it’s here to stay. A fundamental paradigm shift solidified the moment that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey encouraged employees to work from home forever. Influential companies, including Google, Facebook, and Square, followed suit — and as these early adopters move, so do the rest. A notable 88% of organizations worldwide now either encourage or require their employees to work from home, and they reap significant benefits from the arrangement. Freed from tedious and stressful commutes, employees have more time to work: Up to 400 additional hours per year per employee could be reallocated to their workdays, resulting in productivity improvements across 77% of the workforce.
Coupled with this productivity rise, however, is an alarming surge in monitoring to scrutinize employee activity. Workers have long been aware of managers tracking the content of their emails, social media accounts, meeting records, timesheets, and workspace utilization, but with working from home now widespread, the stakes are a lot higher.
Once COVID-19 prompted unprecedented numbers of people to work from home, thousands of companies, including PwC, started panic-buying spy software dubbed “tattleware.” Sneek, for example, takes webcam pictures of employees as regularly as every minute and uploads them for senior leaders to scrutinize. Another system, InterGuard, takes pictures as often as every five seconds, all because bosses in the office-free world increasingly desire evidence — including screenshots, login times, and keystrokes — to ensure that their workforces are productive. Such scrutiny isn’t isolated to one sector, and white-collar workers aren’t the only quantified workforce. Long-haul truckers, for example, are being prescribed devices that monitor their location and vehicle speeds, supposedly to help schedule their sleeping and driving periods.1
This may sound like an Orwellian Big Brother arrangement, but it is in fact legal for organizations to scrutinize their workforces in this way, as long as they disclose that they’re doing it. Managers claim that these measures provide a valuable library of information to help them understand and improve organizational productivity.
However, many workers disagree, harboring concerns about privacy and security. Although designed to ensure productivity, surveillance tools may actually reduce it for those workers who don’t feel trusted by their employers. In fact, many employees are now finding novel and creative ways to evade the executive gaze, and anti-surveillance software is experiencing a boom. Sales and traffic for Presence Scheduler, which can set a Slack status as permanently active, doubled in the first two months of the lockdown, demonstrating real employee resistance against employers. But in response, many workers are now required to remain logged in to a video call all day while they work.
Amid this growing discourse, which side is right?
To answer this question, we studied 1,000 organizations across 17 countries between April and August 2020 to understand the rise of surveillance and deduce how managers should monitor remote work in an ethical way that doesn’t antagonize employees. Triangulating data from multiple sources, including interviews, observations, and surveys — despite each side having reservations about the other — enabled us to identify five fundamental steps that companies should take to monitor remote working ethically.
1. Employees and employers must first accept that remote work is here to stay. Consequently, workplace boundaries must be reset and redefined; expecting employees to produce deliverables during fixed hours while working from home requires productivity on managers’ terms, not necessarily employees’. When surveillance is introduced, management can appear controlling and authoritarian.
Our research suggests that an exchange must occur to maintain equilibrium. Companies offering a flexible schedule or shorter workday achieve the lowest levels of pushback against management introducing surveillance. Of their workers, 86% told us that surveillance is an acceptable trade for greater autonomy; in fact, most welcomed it, with surveillance supporting this new, more flexible style of working.
2. Managers should engage the workforce to reach an agreement on which business activities actually require monitoring and ensure that the benefits of doing so are understood. If surveillance is to be ethical, there must be clear reasons, beyond curiosity or intimidation, for monitoring individuals. Back in the days of traditional office working, colleague accountability and regular face-to-face time were tried and tested ways to monitor workforces.
But if management deems the same monitoring methods, now in virtual form, to be inadequate, it may be necessary to introduce some surveillance — which must be done properly to achieve meaningful benefits. Everyone, at all hierarchical levels, must learn how these new systems operate — to an appropriate extent — and must understand that there is no other suitable option that’s less intrusive.
Our research found that surveillance introduced well, and primarily focused on enhancing the customer experience rather than on scrutinizing internal operations, generated a sizable ROI. Take freelancers and contractors, including lawyers, for example; many now use time-tracking tools to provide concrete records for hours billed. We found that this unprecedented level of transparency has significantly improved client trust, by 42%. In contrast, we found that in more than 75% of organizations, surveillance not focused on enhancing the customer experience failed to produce ROI — a considerable waste of a valuable resource.
3. Ensure that sufficient safeguards are introduced to prevent abuse. Consider the extent and intrusion of monitoring; surveillance that occurs outside of working hours or during time off is an invasion of privacy. Furthermore, managers must be mindful that surveilled employees are forced to invite employers into their homes and living spaces, which those who live in open-plan flats or studio apartments (increasingly common in big cities) may find particularly intrusive.
Employers must fully disclose how and where data is stored. Legal restrictions on data collection and storage apply in many industries, such as health care. For example, 72% of managers told us that captured data was encrypted and stored for up to three years. Data access was granted only to the surveilled person and senior management. Our research found that more than 86% of employees considered these safeguards acceptable if reviewed regularly to maintain pace with the rapid progress and use of technology. But only 8% of employees supported these safeguards without such reviews and iteration.
4. Discrimination can occur despite safeguards put in place. It is crucial that all workplace groups receive fair and consistent levels of monitoring; for example, the most junior-level employees must not be monitored to a greater extent than their managers, or at least not to a degree that causes unique burdens. A disproportionate, irrational level of surveillance of certain individuals relative to others indicates an ethical lapse. Policies that clearly state that all employees are monitored can ensure equal, nondiscriminatory treatment.
That being said, although surveillance provides a record of work undertaken by individual employees — making it easier to dismiss false allegations of unproductive work habits that may arise — the data collected can lead to other types of discriminatory practices. We found that more than 65% of surveillance programs sift through browser histories and can deduce whether employees are pregnant, unwell, or union members. If misused, such information could unfairly influence promotion or dismissal decisions.
To ensure that such bias does not contaminate executive decision-making, 82% of companies take measures to safeguard captured data from those who make decisions on employee promotions or dismissals. But within 22% of the companies that implement such safeguards, we still found managers attempting to access restricted material, which raises a critical issue: trust, or a lack thereof.
5. Above all, employees and employers must rebuild the trust levels that existed in office settings. Without trust, surveillance significantly divides workers and managers: We found that more than 92% of employees being monitored trust their employers less, and 81% of managers trust their workers less. Our research suggests using surveillance as only an interim or supplementary measure in order to address this crisis of trust.
As 72% of employers told us, fear of employees wasting time drives their suspicion. Clear expectations about how new hires demonstrate efficiency eliminates the need to surveil. One CEO told us, “We have no desire to babysit our employees. We’d much rather evaluate our team members’ output as opposed to how they spend their day. But until we know our workers can operate in this new world, we need to be sure.” Managers who hire those skilled in time management obviate the need for monitoring, so altering the hiring process is a better, more sustainable solution than surveillance.
The Last Word
While it’s encouraging to see that companies are paying closer attention to their workforces’ productivity, our study found that setting goals and communicating expected outcomes to employees, in addition to offering them greater autonomy, leads to better results than operating surveillance software. The more responsibility and accountability workers feel they have, the more empowered and productive they will be. Additionally, discarding micromanagement practices frees managers to work on essential activities that add customer value and can lead to increased productivity for everyone.
For successful remote work, employees need tools to collaborate and share their presence — and they shouldn’t be expected to operate in the dark regarding surveillance. Companies should invest in systems — based on trust, not surveillance — that aid collaboration and empower employees to be more productive at home. After all, if managers look after their employees, those employees will in turn look after their customers. And isn’t that what business is about?
1. K.E.C. Levy, “The Contexts of Control: Information, Power, and Truck-Driving Work,” The Information Society 31, no. 2 (2015): 160-174.