Why surveillance tools aren’t the answer to productivity problems

A surveillance camera and someone using a laptop.
(Image credit: ImageFlow / Shutterstock)

A report published by the UK’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Future of Work highlighted a significant increase in the use of algorithmic surveillance and employee monitoring technologies during the pandemic.

About the author

Andrew Filev, Founder, Wrike.

According to a separate recent poll of more than 2,400 workers in the UK, almost one in three (32%) reported being monitored by their employer, up from a quarter (24%) of workers just six months prior.

The use of these tools has now become so common experts are urging to bring forward robust proposals to ‘protect people and safeguard fundamental values.’ The findings also come at a time in which the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) is reviewing guidance to employers on the use of new technologies, including monitoring tools.

Despite many of the organizations deploying these technologies to boost productivity, the outcome is often the opposite. Not only do they fail to encourage productivity, but they also negatively impact staff motivation, causing cultural disconnect. More broadly, businesses need to question whether they are encouraging toxic practices and understand the impact this is having on the workforce.

A need for visibility

Although employees have begun returning to the office, working flexibly and remotely will long continue. Even organizations that previously relied on staff being in one central location have recognized that a work from home option must be available, should they want to attract and retain talent.

With more work pressures and complexities than ever, some managers feel that they lose visibility and, thus, control over their projects and their teams, which contributes to the stress level. They want to feel again that they are managing the work, as opposed to the work managing them. During a time when so many organizations lost profits, productivity, and people, this is understandable.

In this environment, it’s important to focus management and employees on the outcomes. There are management best practices that are much better than surveillance for managers and employees. Specific and measurable objectives are a good starting point. Coupling them with the “why,” helps with motivation, alignment, and better decision making “in the field.” Last but not least, breaking those goals into steps and tracking that progress in real time gives a success blueprint to the employees and the right level of visibility to the management.

Combatting remote work silos

The rise in dispersed teams has also increased the need to feel ‘always on’ and ready to respond in an instant. Without visibility into what teams are doing, or the option to pop by a person’s desk during the day, projects and tasks can get lost in translation, and employers can feel out of the loop.

If some workers are fully remote and others are hybrid or in-office, it can be even trickier for business leaders to feel as though staff are engaged and being productive. This siloed approach to work also intensifies other challenges associated with remote work, such as miscommunication, lack of manager trust, and disintegration of company culture.

To combat this, organizations must prioritize communication and collaboration. Rather than turning to surveillance technologies to keep everyone on the same page, rethink your hybrid strategy to break down silos and maintain a healthy, transparent company culture.

Defining boundaries and being realistic

While these trends may seem somewhat temporary, there is a high chance that employees will continue to work remotely in the future, even if it’s not full-time. Employee burnout will therefore remain a risk that employers need to lookout for and proactively work to overcome - without relying on surveillance and monitoring tools.

By defining boundaries, including setting a schedule for ‘switching off’, businesses can encourage staff to reduce the emphasis on constant productivity. As a result, employees will feel more productive during their ‘on’ hours, maintaining higher levels of engagement and greater outputs.

It’s also essential to help staff set realistic goals that are achievable, attainable, and flexible. No one can be productive 100% of the time, and it’s important for both staff and employers to understand this. Instead of putting unnecessary pressure on the workforce and monitoring what they are doing, help them schedule their time better. Provide them with the right solutions and software to communicate and collaborate on their own schedules - reducing the need to check email outside of office hours or constantly look for status updates.

If employee burnout goes unmitigated, workers are susceptible to workplace burnout. Not only does this hugely hinder the productivity levels that all organizations are chasing, it can also lead to depression, anxiety, and distraction. Surveillance and monitoring tools are only adding to this pressure. Focusing on productivity can be healthy and helpful to work, but when it goes too far, it can become immoral and verge on breaching employee rights. Make sure you’re choosing the right solutions to create a more productive, engaged, and happy workforce.

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Andrew Filev

Andrew Filev, Founder, Wrike.