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Employee surveillance software is here to stay, even when we go back to the office

There’s a fine line between surveillance and management, and there’s an even finer line between legitimate reasons to monitor staff and an illegal intrusion on people’s privacy.

Employee surveillance software is here to stay, even when we go back to the office
[Source images: LenLis/iStock; KOBU Agency/Unsplash; Glenn Carstens-Peters/Unsplash]

For many people, switching to work remote was a hopeful chance to escape the prying eyes of upper management. No longer would they feel pressure to act busy when bosses walked past, or feel guilty about logging into Twitter (even if it is for work purposes). But despite the physical distance, businesses are keeping closer tabs on employees than ever before.

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The use of performance monitoring tools has jumped significantly over the past year, as managers try to improve team visibility and track output. Even before the crisis, 62% of organizations were using monitoring tools to collect data on employees’ behavior during work hours. 

After a year of remote work, those tools have become securely integrated into companies’ day-to-day. Although a return to offices is approaching, managers are unlikely to roll back software that’s provided insight, especially as many businesses will continue to offer work from home as an option.

But there’s a fine line between surveillance and management, and there’s an even finer line between legitimate reasons to monitor staff and an illegal intrusion on people’s privacy. Businesses have to be conscious that the tracking solutions they use are legal, ethical, and don’t damage relations with team members. Here’s how managers can support, not spy, with performance monitoring tools.

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Sophisticated tech leaves greater room for gray areas

As far back as 1915, employers would change the layout of workers’ desks to ensure that they were more exposed and easier to watch throughout the day. Physical time cards also meant that keeping on top of employees’ comings and goings was simple. Fast forward to 2021 and all the solutions are digital: tools like TimeDoctor and Hubstaff take intermittent screenshots of employees’ screens, as well as track the URLs and apps they visit. 

This type of tech brings with it the uncertainty around how recorded data is used or stored. Part of the problem is that software can be activated without users’ permission or knowledge. Likewise, employers can switch on hidden tracking features in the tools or devices that employees use every day. For example, back in April, Zoom introduced a paid “attention tracking” service where hosts could see if attendees navigated away from the meeting for more than 30 seconds.

This is happening within an environment where the line between personal and professional is blurring. As people work from home, they’re more likely to use personal devices to access work accounts and networks. And even if employees are happy for their employer to track their activity throughout the day, managers have to explain in detail if the tools can view non-work-related information on personal devices and if tracking continues outside of office hours. Say someone uses their personal phone to send work emails. Could software still gather data about that user’s location, internet history, social media posts, and app downloads during the weekend? Unless managers clearly lay out reasonable parameters for the tools, employees will feel like their superiors are overstepping boundaries. 

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Know the legal boundaries of employee monitoring

In the United States, companies can legally monitor employees if it’s done in the interest of protecting corporate assets. The main legislation here is the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, which prohibits employers from intentionally intercepting employee communications, except when there is a legitimate business purpose and when the employee agrees. 

Employers are also entitled to monitor internet activity, social media, screen content, and keystrokes. However, they are not allowed to monitor private messages and email accounts that are password protected and sent from a personal device unless consent is given. It’s worth noting too that privacy regulations can vary at the state level, so employers should speak with local law firms before implementing monitoring tools.

For employees, the reality is that companies have free reign when it comes to tracking work devices, and even personal devices that are connected to professional networks. Still, this activity has to be founded on just cause, so if employees have any concerns, they’ll need to contact their labor union or an external legal professional.

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Companies have to be able to explain exactly why they are collecting data on employee activity, and accept that the burden of protecting that data falls on them. If a data breach occurs exposing employee information, team members could pursue legal action. Likewise, if employers violate privacy laws – which can vary at the state level – they could face severe fines. Just in October 2020, retail giant H&M was fined $40 million for privately storing sensitive employee information. The clothing brand collected data from a number of employees on topics like family issues and religious beliefs, which was then stored on a network drive that 50 managers had access to.

Ironically, 77% of employed Americans say they would be less concerned with their employer monitoring their digital activity on personal or work-issued devices they use to conduct work, as long as they’re transparent about it. The biggest takeaway then, is that companies should comply with both the law and employees’ calls to be candid about how they are observed. 

Tracking tools could erode trust among teams

Trust between individuals and their employers can be fragile at the best of times, let alone when teams are working from a distance. Suddenly thrusting performance monitoring tools on people could be seen as an attempt to micromanage, while not telling people that such tools have been implemented could eradicate trust altogether.

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If performance monitoring practices aren’t applied appropriately, they can increase employee stress and anxiety, and damage self-efficacy and job satisfaction. They can also make teams feel like they don’t have the autonomy to manage how and when they work, which lowers morale and ultimately productivity—backfiring on the reason for using such tools in the first place.

Before any software is deployed, managers need to spend time with the tool, learning which metrics are tracked. Once they’re familiarized, they should notify employees, specifying how the tools work, how their data is handled, and why they’re being introduced at that particular moment. A Q&A session might also be necessary to walk teams through the tools and address any concerns head on. The onboarding stage is especially critical to maintain trust, so it’s good to emphasize that the tools aren’t intended to infringe on anyone’s privacy, but rather to hold employees accountable for the goals they set – which more often than not can help improve their performance.

As tracking tools become more popular, it’s likely that tighter regulations will be introduced about how businesses acquire and use employee data. Playing the part of Big Brother will never go down well with teams, and it also could land businesses in serious trouble if they don’t do their research and aren’t transparent from the get go. But when integrated correctly, performance monitoring tools aren’t about breaching boundaries with staff, they’re a bridge to better understand and connect with them.

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Alex Circei is the CEO and cofounder of Waydev, a Git Analytics tool that measures your engineers’ performance automatically.

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