Employee surveillance software — a somewhat niche market before COVID-19 — has well and truly arrived in the modern workplace. Galvanized by the biggest, and most unexpected, remote working experiment in history, managers are increasingly relying on questionable tactics to monitor performance.
Back in June 2020, research by Top10VPN, a virtual private network review site, stated that interest in employee surveillance software had jumped significantly. Depressing? Yes — but wait, it gets worse.
According to the article, global demand for employee monitoring software soared by 87% in April 2020, compared with the monthly average levels seen prior to the pandemic. In May that same year, the figure stood at 71% versus pre-pandemic levels. If this is the future of work that awaits all of us on payroll, I want nothing to do with it. And herein lies the issue — most of us are being watched but we just don’t know it.
From covert webcam access to random screenshot or keystroke monitoring, employee surveillance systems are capable of recording everything a worker does on their computer. Worryingly, this is a sector that’s expected to continue growing.
Such is the growth of the market — or the lack of trust between employers and employees — that analysts believe it will almost double in size; growing from $724.81 million in 2018, to $1.3 billion by 2027. And what’s more, IT or HR leaders looking to deploy these kinds of tactics are spoilt for choice.
Popular software companies in this deeply controversial space include Hubstaff, Time Doctor, ActivTrak, and Teramind. For these platforms, business is booming. “Teramind has seen an increase of 3x the usual business since the start of the pandemic,” Eli Sutton, Teramind’s VP of Global Operations, told UNLEASH.
The HR perspective
Although this tempting technology exists, deploying it can have a devastating effect on employee morale and retention.
Alys Martin, head of people and culture at Eave, a UK-based company working to prevent the loneliness and isolation caused by occupational hearing loss, believes employee surveillance technology will contribute to a culture of mistrust “which is demotivating at best and plain unpleasant at worst.
It [the use of the technology] comes from a real fear that people aren’t doing their jobs because you can’t see them but just because someone’s in the office, doesn’t mean they’re working hard either
Although employee surveillance software is the most intrusive, and obvious, method deployed by employers, leaders are also relying on more subtle ways to keep tabs on their workers.
“I have heard of companies asking people to put Zoom cameras on all day to try and create that office environment but I feel like that would inevitably slip into ‘who’s there and who’s not.’ Don’t get me wrong, it’s really helpful to see people’s faces, especially so that you can be sure they’re feeling OK, but you can help this by creating an environment where you encourage people to be open and honest and letting them know it’s a safe space.
“Feeling like you’re being spied on by your boss is never going to create a positive environment and it will alienate people,” Martin adds.
Martin, whose career has seen her hold down several human resources roles in various UK technology firms, says HR leaders should strive to create a culture where they aim for measurable outputs rather than time at laptop.
“Talk together about what you’re trying to achieve and measure performance that way. You will be far more productive and happy as an organization if your people are feeling trusted, encouraged and understood. By taking people on that journey, you’re far more likely to celebrate success.”
The zeitgeist: The Great Resignation
We’re living in a moment of profound transformation. We’re changing how we work, where we do it, and inevitably many of us are reassessing who we want to work for.
The Great Resignation has seen roughly four million Americans quit their jobs every month between April and July — and what’s worse, there’s no sign of this trend slowing down in the coming months. In fact, Microsoft’s 2021 Work Trend Index report found that 41% of the workforce is considering leaving their current job within the next 12 months. The war on talent is upon us and HR can’t afford to sit on its laurels.
“You cannot buy loyalty with fear. Bossware can turn the workplace into the land of Big Brother,” Olivia James, a Londom-based performance and confidence coach, tells me.
“If you want people to perform well, psychological safety is key. People cannot do their best work if they feel they are being watched and they feel you don’t trust them. Spyware could make workers feel hyper-vigilant, resentful, and joyless. Like grumpy teenagers resisting authority. Treat your staff like adults,” James adds.
Managers within an organization may push for employee surveillance software claiming it’s good for productivity. Some employees, surprisingly, may even agree with this — as long as the monitoring is carried out by a colleague and not a line manager.
Services such as Focusmate, for example, match anonymous strangers on work dates where they talk about what they’ll be focusing on during the meeting and can then rate another’s approach to work at the end. Honestly, I can’t think of anything worse but the aim here is to make workers more productive and feel less lonely at work — and it’s probably more effective than demanding everyone keep their cameras on in the age of Zoom fatigue.
“The right people treated well will take pleasure and pride in work, you don’t need to spy on them. The wrong people will try to game the system. Metrics like keystrokes can be correlated to output but that doesn’t mean the work will be any good. Bossware could encourage busywork,” James adds.
Think outside the box
Mutual trust and respect are crucial ingredients in employee and employer relations and they should be nurtured and protected above all else. Having access to innovative — or intrusive — technology isn’t an issue but the key is to think about how all the decisions you make in this realm will impact your workforce in the short, medium, and long-term.
What you want is for your employees to feel engaged, motivated, and productive. You want them to feel inspired by their work, colleagues, and surroundings. You need them to want to stay not because they have to but because they want to. You want boomerang hires — let’s be honest, you need all the help you can get to attract the right talent at the right price in the current market.
This all seems so obvious but I’ve seen so many organizations make costly mistakes; losing valuable employees because they’d decided to install productivity tracking software on laptops or using the ‘Find My Friends’ functionality on iPhones to track their salespeople while they were out at client meetings. Legalities aside, if this is how the leaders within your organization are managing employees, you have a serious culture issue and throwing technology at the problem isn’t going to help you.
If you want my unsolicited advice: invest in technology that’s truly going to empower your people. Think about how you can make the hybrid environment better, how the tools you invest in work with each other, and what your employees actually want. Use technology as a power for good, don’t allow it to aggravate decade-old problems. Consult with your peers in other organizations and remember: the future of work isn’t coming — it’s already here and it’s about people and collaboration.