Your Boss is Watching You. Here’s Why Monitoring Workers is a Two-Edged Sword

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A recent New York Times story examined how American companies track and monitor their workers. More and more employers are relying on invasive technology to monitor their workers. Although there are definitely challenges in managing employees in today’s fast-paced online world, closely monitoring their every minute may not be the best solution.

What does employee monitoring say about the relationship between workers and their companies? Is micromanaging employees a legitimate or meaningful way to evaluate how well they work? Who ultimately benefits when companies use invasive technology to oversee their employees?

Employers should want their workers to be productive. They need to protect themselves and grow their bottom lines. Monitoring employees can benefit both workers and companies, but it can backfire in unfortunate ways if not done thoughtfully. Before investing in technology that tracks what workers are doing during their working hours, companies should understand the implications and potential downsides of workplace monitoring.

Related: You’ve Been Tracking Employee Productivity All Wrong

Managing vs. micromanaging

The software technology used by many companies tracks just about everything workers do, from the number of keystrokes on their computers to how quickly they scan groceries. It may ding them for too many bathroom breaks or penalize them for resting their fingers while they use their brains. Employees report feeling compelled to hit the keys just to register activity.

According to the article, such software is present at Amazon, UPS, United Healthcare and Kroger‘s stores, measuring and scoring workers in both blue and white-collar jobs daily. It creates a record of employee performance upon which companies rely when making important decisions about pay, promotions and continued employment.

Good managers should understand workplace dynamics and know that different people work differently. They should keep track of their workers by observing them during the workday, meeting with them to discuss problems and successes, garnering information from coworkers and customers who regularly interact with them and looking at how others perform the same tasks. They should make personnel decisions based on these inputs, assigning appropriate weight to each.

When companies rely on technology to micromanage their workplaces, employees are no longer being managed. They are statistics that don’t reflect their real value to the company. Companies may dismiss or demote those who think outside the box, perform tasks differently, or otherwise don’t conform. Employees who think creatively, solve problems and break the mold could become regimented bean counters who go through the motions to stay employed. Everybody ultimately loses.

Employee mental health

We know that work-life balance is directly linked to mental health. Happier employees are more productive and committed to their work. During the COVID pandemic, many workers discovered that they could have flexibility in their work arrangements and purpose in their work. The “Great Resignation” was a message to employers that workers demanded greater job satisfaction and respect at work.

Installing “Big Brother” technology that spies on employees sends the opposite message. It tells employees that they are neither valued nor trusted. What a bizarre thing to communicate to a workforce with one foot out the door! Instead, companies should be working to rebuild the trust between themselves and their workers, signaling that workers are expected and trusted to do their jobs.

If there are problems with output, efficiency or productivity, management should address them through traditional channels: Document observed lapses, establish an improvement plan, and review progress toward defined goals. Pulling up a computer-generated spreadsheet that tracks keystrokes is no way to build trust, improve morale or instill a sense of ownership and responsibility. If anything, it will lower employees’ sense of self-worth while diminishing their commitment to the company.

Related: You Work Better When You’re Being Watched. Here’s How To Monitor Yourself

Employer protection

That being said, companies need to know what’s happening at their workplaces. To ensure that their money is well spent, they need a good grasp of what their workers are doing while on the job. They can get this in various ways — observation, periodic goals and deliverables, third-party surveys – that don’t smack of overreaching. Even if they implement tracking technology, they should partner its results with other review methods. Such an approach reminds employees that they are being watched while assuring them that they aren’t subject to arbitrary, machine-generated reviews.

In addition to ensuring workers are doing what they’re being paid to do, employers need to ensure workers aren’t violating policies, breaking the law or engaging in inappropriate conduct while at the worksite. If they fail to do this, they could expose themselves to liability. It doesn’t take much effort to run regular searches across emails for keywords likely to signal bias, misogyny, homophobia or other objectionable mindsets. Such communications have no place in the workplace and could signal severe problems for a company if not timely addressed.

Whether they suspect bad activity or not, employers should give themselves the tools they need to police employee communications on shared systems. Federal law says that employers with policies stating that they can monitor their email systems have the right to monitor emails sent by employees on their work devices. Employers should therefore publish policies in their handbooks stating that employee emails and internet usage may be monitored and that employees should have no expectations of privacy in their email communications or computer usage. They should ask their employees to acknowledge receipt of these policies.

Related: ‘Quiet Firing’ Is Taking the Workplace by Storm. What Is It Exactly?

The bottom line

Workers who are appropriately managed and respected will feel valued in the workplace. They will show a higher level of engagement, productivity and loyalty. Instead of relying solely on technology to assess and value workers, companies should monitor them with thoughtfulness and intent. When this happens, everybody wins.

Related: Can Employee Monitoring Be Done Ethically?

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Arash Homampour