The Thin Line Between Oversight and Surveillance

With almost half of the labor force working from home, many workers have finally been able to experience the flexibility they have long craved. As a result, HR leaders are now having to develop and reimagine policies that provide a positive impact on employee wellbeing, while also monitoring performance in this new environment. 

Businesses are having to experiment with new forms of time and attendance tracking to accommodate the new remote workforce. And while the act of collecting start and end times are easily implemented, monitoring and tracking performance during those hours is a different story. The balance between performance monitoring and surveillance is a thin line and one that businesses are running multiple case studies on today.

Take, for example, professional services company PwC, which has developed biometric technology to scan employees’ faces and record their breaks, even to use the bathroom. 

Other forms of software for monitoring remote worker productivity — provided by companies such as Teramind, Hivedesk, and WorkExaminer — monitor the applications employees use on their computers, their keystrokes, emails, downloads, transfers. Some even take screenshots of employees’ screens at regular time intervals. 

InterGuard, meanwhile, creates a timeline of every website and app each employee looks at, using this to calculate their “productivity score,” notifying managers if their activity seems suspicious. 

Then there’s Zoom, which at one point, tried to implement an “attention tracking” feature into its video call software. The feature alerted call hosts when participants were becoming distracted. However, after receiving heavy criticism, the company removed the feature in a move to protect the “security and privacy” of its customers. 

Adapting Your HR Policy

As some of the above examples show, businesses and software providers have faced a backlash when rolling out surveillance features considered to be overbearing. Meanwhile, some employees working under these new monitoring tools are reporting heightened levels of stress and burnout.    

Furthermore, labor groups have begun entering the conversation. In the U.K., for example, trade unions have called for the regulation of these tools, describing it as a “dystopia” for workers. 

It’s clear that HR leaders need to start carefully crafting policies that strike the right balance between oversight and surveillance. This should include the following: 

Involve Employees From the Outset   

Workers rarely welcome any form of monitoring, but if you involve staff representatives during the consultation and design process, it will provide transparency to employees and may help uncover additional factors to consider. This is a new environment for all parties, so the more communication you can provide, the more at ease your people will feel.

You should also regularly consult employees once monitoring systems go live. This helps to identify any pain points in the monitoring regimen that you can adjust accordingly before they become much bigger issues.   

Adopt a “Less Is More” Mindset 

The infinite possibilities of data collection and analysis can be very alluring. But you want to always have the following question in mind when designing your policy: What is the least amount of data I need to appropriately monitor performance?

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The less data you’re collecting, the less stressful it will feel to employees. Also be mindful of avoiding collecting data that could result in employees having to jump through hoops, such as the number of emails or Slack messages sent, or the number of meetings booked.  

Decide How You Will Use Data

This area requires very careful thought and consideration. How will you use the findings from your monitoring regimen in performance appraisals, salary reviews, and disciplinary matters? Linking data outputs from monitoring to performance reviews is no doubt going to cause some stress and anxiety among your workforce, as employees will feel they’re being judged by an algorithm.

If your existing performance review process works as well in a remote setting as it did in an office setting, then it’s important to question if there is any need to add these new monitoring-related outputs to it.      

Monitor Equally Throughout the Org

While different job roles may require different forms of monitoring, different levels of seniority within the same or similar job roles should not. That is to say, everybody should receive the same level of monitoring, from entry-level to executive. 

The benefits of this approach are numerous. It can help prevent discrimination of protected groups within the workforce if they are more heavily represented at certain levels. This type of policy is also far more defensible with the workforce, as everybody feels like they’re treated equally. And it’s also great for internal PR and wider acceptance of the policy if interns know they are held to the same standard as senior execs. 

Beware of Gaming the System

This point is less about protecting employees and more about protecting the efficacy of your systems. Quantitative measurements such as the number of emails sent can always be gamed. Meanwhile, more onerous surveillance, such as regular screenshots, can easily be gotten around by an employee simply using their own device at the same time for personal browsing.  

Ultimately, as HR leaders, the responsibility falls on us to craft ethical policies that balance the legitimate needs of businesses while not placing a mental or emotional toil onto workers. This is a new world for all of us, so some missteps along the way are inevitable. But if we have a solid foundation for how to approach this, we can ensure that we implement policies and systems grounded in fairness and equality.

Adam Day is president and CEO at Time Rack, a time and attendance and HR services company, providing time tracking software, hardware, and mobile apps to businesses.    

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