Ask Alto Watching you, watching me: workplace surveillance in a post-Covid world

April 13, 2023 Share this article:

Ask Alto

In the 1700s, English philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, championed the Panopticon Tower as an architectural device to keep prisoners in check. A central watchtower with a line of sight to all cells would mean that prisoners knew they were being watched, but not when. Bentham believed this would prevent prisoners from breaking rules, and allow a small number of guards to control a large prison population. The concept of the ubiquitous watcher could, he argued, also assist in managing hospitals, asylums, and factories.

Today, the psychological fear of being watched is known as “surveillance anxiety” or “the panopticon effect”. It refers to the discomfort, stress, or paranoia that individuals may experience when they feel they are being watched or monitored, even if the monitoring is for benign or legitimate purposes.

A panopticon tower in the workplace?

Workplace surveillance is not new, but the degree to which it is now possible to monitor employees’ behaviour is. Surveillance and Society, an open-access, peer-reviewed academic journal, points out that the recent advent of digital employee monitoring technology has – for the first time ever – made the workplace truly panoptic, scaling heights that Bentham could only dream about. In addition to the lack of privacy and the trust deficit created by surveillance, the journal says the underlying assumption that “an unobserved worker is an inefficient one” has profound implications for power relations in the modern workplace.

Even before the start of Covid-19, workplace surveillance was already a $1.1 billion industry. According to a study by Top10VPN, global demand for employee monitoring software was up 75% in January 2022, the largest increase since the start of the pandemic in 2019. It’s a trend unlikely to be reversed anytime soon. As the report points out, previous international crises have shown that once heightened surveillance measures are introduced, they are often never reversed. Indeed, research by Gartner found that in the next three years, 70% of large firms will be deploying user activity monitoring (UAM) software to observe (or spy on, depending on your view), monitors, cameras, keystrokes, microphones, screens, printers, social media, emails, chats, and locations. And however uncomfortable this feels, it’s nothing compared to the vast body of data held by many employee wellness programmes (ranging from information about individual sleep patterns and prescription medication, to whether birth control scripts have been filled). Additionally, recent advances in the field of neuroinformatics aimed at detecting employee brain activity and attention levels are potentially one of the most extreme forms of employee surveillance yet.

How far is too far?

It remains to be seen how far employees, labour unions, and governments will permit companies to gather intrusive and confidential data that could potentially be used in ways that mask discrimination.

So far, pushback from employees has been limited to attempts to confuse or defy the algorithms, prompting higher levels of deviance as employees covertly protest their loss of privacy and the imbalance it creates in the employer/employee relationship. This paradoxical effect is particularly prevalent among employees accustomed to a high degree of freedom and choice. Introducing surveillance measures, unsurprisingly, can affect their sense of autonomy, trust, and well-being in the workplace, potentially leading to resentment and high attrition rates. According to a study by Morning Consult, about half of tech workers would quit a job, or would avoid taking a new job if they knew tracking was occurring. Equally worrying is the effect on employees on the other end of the spectrum who suffer stress and burnout, working at unsustainable rates to stay ahead of the targets for fear of losing their jobs. Either way, the potential for a lose-lose scenario is high.

If you must watch your employees, do it carefully

All of which suggests that just because you can, doesn’t always mean you should. That said, monitoring and surveillance apps are increasingly being framed as productivity boosters, and organisational FOMO is likely to drive their implementation further and harder across industries. If you simply must follow suit, here’s how to avoid unintended consequences and retain employee trust:

  • Be transparent. Explain why you are implementing surveillance, what information will be collected, when it will be collected, how it will be stored, who will have access to it (internally and externally), what steps you are taking to protect unauthorised access to it, how it will be used, and whether employees will be informed if their information is leaked. Employees also need to know what information an employer is obliged by law to disclose to third parties, and under what circumstances the employer will do so.

  • Seek consent. Even if laws in your region don’t require employee consent to surveillance that gathers personal information, seeking employee consent is good practice and encourages transparency. This consent should be voluntary and informed, and employees should have the right to withdraw their consent at any time.

  • Make sure you’re measuring the right things. Productivity should not be confused with performance. Counting keystrokes or the speed with which an employee reads an email won’t tell you about their problem-solving or team-building skills. Measuring overall performance in areas that will affect career progression is key.

  • Involve employees in the process. Invite feedback from employees on what information they are comfortable with being collected and how they would like to be monitored. Provide a platform for employees to raise concerns, and a policy review process to consider changes in legislation, research, organisational requirements, and technology.

  • Use the data for positive purposes, such as improving safety, productivity, and employee well-being. This helps to build a sense of purpose and can make employees more comfortable with the idea of being monitored. Using surveillance to punish or catch people doing something wrong is a sure way to create a toxic work environment.

  • Provide training to employees on workplace surveillance policies and practices. This helps employees understand the purpose of the surveillance and how to comply with the policies. It’s the speed camera approach. Warning motorists of the existence of covert cameras causes drivers to slow down, which is the desired safety outcome, not the issuing of fines.

  • Consider the alternatives. Instead of micro-managing employees and monitoring how many games of Candy Crush they get through in a toilet break, consider what an equivalent investment in artificial intelligence can do to streamline the company’s operation.

  • Don’t use it as a substitute for quality supervision. There is no point in monitoring everyone just to get rid of one bad apple who could be more effectively performance managed by a skilled manager.

Ultimately, intrinsic motivation is the holy grail of leadership. People perform poorly in environments of diminished trust. Organisations need to be careful that in the rush to monitor employees and mine them for data, they don’t erode the very basis of that relationship.