In 1984, the moustachioed face of Big Brother on coins, screens and posters is a constant reminder to the people of Oceania that their totalitarian state is always watching them. Seven decades after George Orwell wrote his novel, company bosses have powers of surveillance that would be the envy of Big Brother. Yet these are powers that should be exercised with care in any forward-thinking business.

Even before the pandemic, many businesses used a range of monitoring tools to track what employees got up to on their PCs. But usage of software like StaffCop, Teramind, Hubstaff, CleverControl, and Time Doctor really exploded as employees were sent home to work during national lockdowns to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

Among the features of these tools are real-time activity tracking, the ability to take screenshots of workers’ computers at regular intervals, keystroke logging, and screen recording. Many managers eagerly embraced these tools as a means to ensure that employees were at their desks during working hours and that they weren’t slacking off on the job.

Accelerating the trend

As Brian Kropp, group vice president for Gartner’s HR practice, tells ComputerWorld, the trend isn’t new and COVID has made businesses and employees confront the conversation a few years earlier than they would otherwise have needed to, “We were already moving in this direction of passively monitoring our employees, listening to them and watching them, and asking them less and less,” he says.

Yet, even so, the move-fast-and fix-things-later mentality many businesses have needed to adopt during COVID means that the implications of rapid integration of desktop surveillance tools have not always been thought through. Now is an ideal time for businesses to pause and consider if, when and how it is appropriate to monitor their workforce’s every keystroke, website visit and working minute.

One of the strongest arguments against usage of employee monitoring software to enforce Draconian rules about working hours is that it can be counterproductive. In much the same way as clock-watchers in the real world look busy when a manager walks past, employees who know they are being tracked are nearly two times more likely to pretend to be working, according to Gartner.

As such, monitoring employees with a view to enforcing the amount of time they spend at their desks with their core applications open doesn’t help to boost productivity. It may, instead, distract them from their jobs, prompt them to find ways to game the system (anti-surveillance software is enjoying a boom of its own), and ultimately, undermine the spirit of trust and cooperation with the business.

Monitoring can harm employee retention, motivation and productivity

Indeed, there is a growing body of research that shows how damaging a poorly-thought-out approach to employee monitoring can be. Fast Company cites two interesting studies. The first survey from Baylor University found that monitoring software correlated with greater employee tension and less job satisfaction, indicating higher turnover intent.

The second piece of research shows that surveillance can slightly increases employees’ motivation to earn rewards or avoid punishment, but at the cost of significantly reducing their intrinsic work motivation. The research suggests that employees were less willing to go beyond the call of duty for the company when they knew their internet activity was being monitored.

This all suggests that an approach to monitoring that is geared towards compliance and punishment is not well suited to environments where we want employees to be creative, self-motivated and engaged. Instead, organisations should be looking at how they can measure employees by output and contribution to business goals.

For this reason, some business thinkers are urging companies to use employee monitoring as a means to help rather than police their workforces. Harvard Business School professor, Raj Choudhury, for instance, advocates tracking screen time to measure for wellness and data security, not productivity. This makes sense, given that overwork and burnout are as much of an issue as slacking.

Employee monitoring data, when anonymised, can also help the company to drive better performance and productivity. SHRM gives the example of using employee data to set working schedules based on when people are at their most productive. Some work better early in the morning; others in the evening. The data can be used to help set working shifts that help everyone be at their best.

Ultimately, it’s up to each company to decide how it will deploy employee monitoring tools and practices in an ethical manner and for what purposes.

In closing, here are a few principles that will help companies to use the technology without being overly creepy:

  • Don’t monitor employees in secret. Let them know which data is collected, why and how it is used.
  • Don’t monitor what remote employees are doing after-hours, beyond watching for serious compliance issues like leaking corporate data or using company IT resources for illegal activities.
  • Be consistent in how office and remote employees are monitored and treated.
  • Trust employees to do the right things until they show they can’t be trusted.
  • Use remote monitoring data to benefit employees, for example, through training and wellness support.



[Photo by Kampus Production from Pexels]