HR leaders need to understand that increased monitoring of employees can lead to long-term consequences and misuse.
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The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on human resources professionals who have had to rapidly transition employees to working from home (WFH) while also protecting those still working in company facilities. These new conditions will likely continue even as businesses experiment with approaches to reopening. Employees and employers alike may feel the return to offices is too risky or may face external challenges such as finding suitable childcare. Many companies will let employees who’ve proven they can effectively work from home continue to do so.
Companies value co-location because it provides opportunities for spontaneous conversations and team dynamics better suited for innovation.1 However, much work that can feasibly be done remotely often is not; whether to allow it is a management decision, not a technical problem. After the pandemic started, many companies that previously insisted remote work wasn’t possible have quickly adopted technologies that enable it to happen. Within this new model of remote work, the decision to use monitoring and surveillance tools to oversee productivity is also a management decision—and one that is quickly gaining traction. Sales of monitoring tools increased in the weeks after the large-scale transition to WFH.2
A pressing next-tier challenge facing HR leaders is helping companies that are relatively inexperienced with WFH employees understand how to effectively motivate, reward and interact with their people in new ways. For a vast number of supervisors, this change has happened remarkably fast, and monitoring tools seem a simple way to manage remotely. But the risks associated with improper use of these tools is significant—and the data indicate that they are being misused.
Businesses can have many reasons for using surveillance tools, including protecting assets, managing risk, controlling costs, enforcing protocols, ensuring productivity and safeguarding against legal liability. Managers may intend to monitor workers to ensure adequate levels of productivity, but data-centric surveillance tools provide employers with both an incomplete picture of worker productivity and more information than what is sought. Executives risk backlashes over privacy infringement and other employee concerns in the shift to increased monitoring of remote work, including flattening and oversimplification of productivity measures, demand for constant communication, overreliance on predicting and flagging tools, and boundary-less biometric and health data tracking. Monitoring and surveillance tools that give supervisors a view into employee activities can provide insights, but an overreliance on metrics risks narrowing an organization’s focus on activity rather than contributions, decision-making and accomplishments.
Remote Monitoring and Time Tracking
Advanced time-tracking systems can generate itemized records of on-the-job activities including keystrokes, time spent on specific applications, documents opened and email read. Companies thinking about how best to manage a workforce from afar may decide to install such tools on computers to provide greater detail about work activities. One challenge to this form of monitoring is that work becomes quantified only in terms of what can actually be measured.3 More intangible activities such as ideation, planning work processes or evaluating one’s progress cannot easily be measured. This raises questions over how certain kinds of work may be devalued or uncompensated because they cannot be remotely measured in the same way.
In a recent New York Times piece, journalist Adam Satariano subjected himself and his boss to HubStaff,4 a work surveillance tool, for three weeks. His supervisor received a daily “productivity metric” based on Satariano’s typing and mouse movement. The metric consistently showed Satariano’s productivity level below 50 percent. When asked about it, Satariano explained the system didn’t credit him for time spent making phone calls and other noncomputer work. In another instance, Satariano received a productivity score of 22 percent despite working a recorded 14 hours, according to the software report.
Managers’ use of data provided by these tools can have a punitive effect. Amid this crisis, normal behavior and levels of productivity will vary widely between employees and from day to day. With almost no child care or educational infrastructure for working parents to rely on, they will have more distractions. Moreover, women continue to carry the burden of household work and caregiving.5 Now that families are essentially on lockdown, these responsibilities are omnipresent. Relying too heavily on data that flattens measures of productivity fails to acknowledge the situation of working parents and family caregivers.
The gamification of work is also a risk in this complex WFM context.6 Rendering worker activities into competitive, game-like dynamics driven solely by select optimization metrics can focus employees and supervisors alike on a narrow range of behaviors. Work becomes governed by rewards and penalties, badges for work tasks and score-based goal-setting. Using these scores as the sole benchmark of success or failure can lay the foundation for a culture that values activity over outcomes, and badges over supervisor-employee discussions.
Pervasive tracking creates new pressures on another group of employees: supervisors who may find themselves doing more work to interpret activity reports and data. It also places them in an uncomfortable position of potentially invading employees’ private lives. Workers generally have few claims to privacy at work, but if homes are now work sites, monitoring software invites employers into private homes.
Employers new to managing large-scale remote workforces often harbor fears that workers will shirk their responsibilities because a supervisor cannot see them, walk to their desk or call an impromptu meeting. Inexperienced managers and companies are using tools to keep a constant line of communication open, but that risks creating an “open window” into employees’ homes and private lives. Some managers have asked employees to have their cameras and microphones on throughout the workday,7 regardless of whether there is actual communication happening.
Overreliance on monitoring can come across as a sudden loss of trust and make employees feel that past performance, good will or amicable relationship do not count. In a time when companies talk about the importance of purpose, engagement, and employee autonomy and innovation, some of the monitoring triggered in the WFH transitions can seem a return to industrial-style management.
Predicting and Flagging Tools
Employers also face challenges maintaining company protocols and policies and protecting assets from a distance. Office norms and protocols in a typical setting can be enforced through security systems, peer pressure and direct supervision, but with distributed teams, these dynamics are harder to implement. Within knowledge work and white-collar office environments, flagging tools are used to generate performance reports on both aggregate and individual work data. These tools are also designed to highlight data patterns that suggest unusual behaviors.
Originally created to identify rule-breaking and prevent fraud, the software records computer activities like browsing history, file downloads and email exchanges. Some take snapshots of screens periodically, capturing open applications and files, email and video calls. Within service industries like retail and food service, flagging systems are typically tied to point of sale systems, CCTV surveillance and digital timekeeping systems. For some industries, such as in finance, fraud is a serious crime that can have huge implications. But in other industries, minor infractions such as processing a higher than average number of returns or opening a large number of attachments can also be categorized as rule-breaking.
The behaviors these systems focus on to identify rule-breaking are often proxies rather than concrete evidence of fraudulent or rule-breaking activity. As a result, these tools raise concerns about their accuracy and interpretation, particularly in inexperienced hands and without consulting with the employee.
Biometric and Health Data Tracking
The global pandemic has accelerated calls for greater health tracking. Biometric and health data collected through wearables and fitness apps as part of workplace wellness are likely to increase as some employers attempt to minimize the spread of COVID-19. Previous forms of health data collection have been critiqued as potentially coercive, even if they are opt-in, because employees who decline them could be excluded from certain benefits or deemed riskier by employers. Regardless of the type of monitoring, tracking non-work-related activities can cross the boundary into personal privacy.8
New contact-tracing programs are within sight.9 Amazon and Walmart have announced that they will begin taking employees’ temperatures when they enter facilities.10 One company in China continuously tracks delivery workers temperatures and displays this information on mobile apps.11 Some companies are thinking further ahead and outfitting workplaces with thermal sensors and biometric contactless entry for the eventual return to offices.
Unfortunately, these methods of detection are not always reliable. Temperature tools may not be an effective gauge of fever outside of medical settings because other factors such as physical activity can raise body temperature, and asymptomatic COVID-19 carriers may not exhibit tell-tale signs.12 Contact-tracing technologies are only effective if a large percentage of people agree to be tracked, yet a recent poll by the University of Maryland found that half of Americans with smartphones would not be willing to use an infection-tracing app.13
As companies take actions to ensure productivity, maintain protocols and protect workplace health, increased monitoring cannot be the end goal. HR professionals know this well, but the research suggests that many managers, supervisors and executives may not. The WFH shift triggered by COVID-19 has rapidly expanded deployment of potentially invasive tools and put them in the hands of reasonably inexperienced supervisors.
Workers generally have few claims to privacy at work, but if homes are now work sites, monitoring software invites employers into private homes.
Employers also have a choice in how these tools are used. One option is to allow workers to organize themselves into teams and give them access to the data that is collected from monitoring to identify and collectively work through problems.14 Companies that invest in tools like thermal scanners should pair this with related policies such as paid sick leave, more frequent cleaning of facilities and reconfiguring work spaces to allow for social distancing.
COVID-19 can render an entire workplace hazardous. This is reason enough for implementing a WFH policy when possible. But managing remote work cannot be left to supervisors’ understanding of productivity software. The decisions that company executives make now can have long-term consequences, build new practices and norms, change employee relationships with supervisors, impact workers’ sense of privacy and safety, and establish—for better or worse—the types of work that will be valued by the organization.
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