Managing the pitfalls of employee monitoring while finding better solutions

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As employers look to adapt to remote work, many are considering the move to surveillance systems that will monitor everything from employee productivity to workplace safety.

But there are pitfalls of employee monitoring, which can be damaging to company culture, says Rhiannon Staples, CMO of Hibob, an employee and HR management platform. Many of Hibob’s clients — which range from tech and gaming companies to media and entertainment — have historically worked remotely. The shift to working from home due to COVID-19 was not new to them, but it forced the hand of businesses who’ve never had a remote workforce.

Staples says she sees a recent trend toward greater surveillance, and businesses looking for technologies they can put in place to monitor the daily activities of their employees during the pandemic.

“It really seems to go against what I believe to be an evolution in the market toward more trust, transparency and empowerment. This whole notion now of monitoring just seems to really destroy the cultural aspects that many employers are focused on building out,” she says.

How surveillance impacts workplace culture is also critically important, Staples says. Nearly three quarters of employees say that company culture is one of the key things they look for when joining a business, according to Hibob surveys.

“I feel like this notion of surveillance can be almost like a bomb an organization could set off culturally,” she says. “While they might believe that they're solving the productivity issue, they're really putting up a cultural scar on their business, which is going to be really hard to get away from when they start to open themselves up to new candidates coming into the business.”

Staples shared some of the risks with employee monitoring and how it can damage productivity, trust, and morale — and how the role of leadership and HR will need to evolve as remote work continues.

Can you describe the state of employee monitoring, and how it’s been impacted by COVID-19?
There's been reports of surveillance technologies and systems on the rise, where companies are starting to look for technologies they can put in place to do things like screen grabbing their employees' screen at different points throughout the day, and providing that visibility to their managers about what exactly it is that they're working on.

I had such an allergic reaction when I heard that, it just flies in the face. Partly because of what our customers know, but also from my experience as someone who's personally worked from home quite a bit over the past couple of years, and I really find that to be the norm for the types of companies I've worked with historically.

What is the downside to employee monitoring?
First of all, it's not all encompassing. So just getting a screen grab of your employee or employees screen isn’t really a 100% true representation of the work that they're doing. So take, for instance, people who are more productive at different points throughout the day — and we see this a lot — and home and work has totally blended together. So you might very well take a screen grab of someone who's shopping for bicycles at 10 a.m., but your system isn't set up to take a screen grab of what they're doing at 9:30 at night, which might not be normal business hours for the employer, but could very well be normal business hours for that employee. So first and foremost, I think it is the accuracy of it.

Second is just the employee perception. It instantly conveys a message to your employees that you don't trust them. That you feel you have to watch them to be able to really understand how well they're doing or how well they're performing. And that being "on" is more important than the work, and the quality of work, that they're doing. That’s really not the type of environment that would be attractive to the most promising candidates, as they want flexibility and they want to know that their employers trust them. They want to be treated like an adult and to work in an environment that trusts that they're bringing their best work every day.

Those are really big drawbacks for companies that choose to implement this type of [monitoring] technology. It's also uncomfortable for managers to have that level of visibility into your employees' work. I can say, as a manager, that I wouldn't want to see my employees screenshots throughout the day. It instantly creates a barrier between us, as I'm watching them, which isn't the way that I want to manage people. I think this is a call for real leadership in businesses, and to get away from surveillance and into conversations about things like value, contribution, goals and objectives.

But isn’t it important for employers and companies to ensure productivity? And isn’t employee monitoring a good tool for that?
I'll say yes to the first half of the question and no to the second. Yes, it is imperative for employers to make sure that their employees are continuing to be productive. Work from home should not be a pass to slack off during the day. But what we find is actually the opposite of it, as we see a lot more people complaining these days that they're having a harder time finding work-life balance because they're working harder than ever before. The answer to that problem, though, I don't think is surveillance. I think the answer to that problem is really strong leadership. I think it's important that leaders and businesses make their goals and objectives really clear to employees in the organization at a corporate level. Managers have a responsibility for making sure that their teams and their individual team members understand how their activities tie to those goals and objectives of the business, and that their personal goals and objectives are set up in the same way.

How do you think the role of leadership and HR will evolve as remote work continues?
Surveillance systems are a proxy, or a replacement, for good leadership. I don't think it's as effective of a way of making sure that your people are bringing their best work. You could put a surveillance system in place, but you're not measuring it by what the employees are actually doing for the business, what their output is and what the outcomes are. I think that's a better way for businesses to invest. Investing in leadership skills that encourage managers to have a very clear construct in place for managing the conversation about what's expected of employees, and whether or not they're achieving those expectations.

There should be visibility through conversation, to be able to give real-time feedback on where employees might be falling short. That's theoretically what the surveillance systems are intending to do, to give the manager a view into places that might be problematic so that the manager can address it with the employee. But I don't think that's the best way to find indicators of where there might be problems. I think it should be more tied to outcomes.

Companies that have not put technology in place to support a remote culture will start to make that shift. The conversations we're having is no longer about “how do I manage the digital aspects of the HR role?” but “how do I use technology to keep my team feeling engaged and connected to my culture?” We want employees to feel like they're part of a larger business, and employers need to think about what technology they can put in place to drive collaboration and better oversight and goal management.

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