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This post is by associate Triage Practitioner, and guest blogger, Matthew Savage 

Allowing employees the flexibility to work a number of days from home, and some from the office has been seen by many as a huge benefit to work-life balance since the start of the pandemic. In 2019, approximately 25% of workers had worked from home in some capacity and in 2020, this increased to 36.7% (ONS, 2020). However, over the last year, it has become even more apparent that office working is in the decline and home working is on the increase. Many employers are happy allowing their employees the opportunity to work from home, giving them more ownership and responsibility for their own work than ever before. Research and meta-analysis suggests that giving workers a sense of ownership and autonomy leads to an increase in production (Kruse and Blasi, 1995), employee wellbeing and overall staff satisfaction (Reuschke, 2019). However, despite a heavy body of literature supporting the above, there has been a huge growth in computer and employee tracking software since 2020, suggesting many employers believe their staff members need to be watched to ensure they are accountable, showing a lack of trust. It is not illegal to monitor staff whilst they work from home, but where should the line be drawn to ensure minimal negative impact on the wellbeing and productivity of staff members?

Basic Time Tracking

There is no doubt that most staff members are willing to accept some form of employee monitoring. The most common is email filtering, clocking time, recording calls and tracking internet use. Research suggests that employees clocking working time is the simple way of tracking working hours and allows managers to track time spent vs. productivity. It is simple and easy and seen as mostly non-invasive. Companies such as Time Doctor have seen revenues soar since the start of the Coronavirus pandemic, promising managers increased productivity for employees by focusing on one task at a time, ensuring accountability for project managers, effective team management and “preventing burnout” by allowing employees and employers to be vigilant about the amount of time they spend working. Whilst all this sounds very positive, apps such as Time Doctor will continue to monitor your computer if employees forget to turn it off and GPS time tracking apps can also track the location of employees unless switched off manually, allowing employers to pinpoint the location of their staff members. This moves time tracking into the more “invasive” realm.

Key Stroke Tracking

Systems such as Pragli can track an employee’s keyboard and mouse movements and can mark a user as “active” or “idle”. If typing stops for more than 15 seconds, this can alert a manager who can use the program to start a video call with the worker to check on their status. Pragli claims to bring workers closer together, by allowing teams to sync calendars, music playlists, join virtual chat rooms such as “The Water Cooler” and allow users to feel like they are part of a wider community. However, it is easy to see these claims of providing a “friendly office environment” as simply covert, overbearing surveillance. Labelling workers as “idle” whilst they pop out to make a cup of coffee may affect the morale of a workforce, and over surveillance such as this can lead to an increase in undesirable behaviours, something employee monitoring aims to decrease. As one example, auto-clicking software exists to simulate mouse-clicking by-passing key stroke trackers. Additionally, a body of research suggests that workers who feel that they are not trusted will often rebel against management, leading to resistance, sabotage, and non-compliance (Frenkel et al, 1998).

Camera Surveillance

Software like “Sneek” and “Stealth” automatically snap photos of workers every one to five minutes. This can be set manually by a worker but will nearly always be adjusted to the manager's requests. Whilst such software saw huge growth during lockdowns, major benefits of using the software are unclear, despite claims it allows for “greater collaboration and communication”. Whilst it allows workers to immediately chat to a colleague by simply clicking their face on a live, virtual chat board, many workers feel it is an invasion of privacy, blurring the lines between home and work life. Many managers may suggest that this is the easiest way to keep employees accountable and present, but there are also psychological impacts of such heavy surveillance. For example, a recent study found that turning off cameras during video calls led to an increase in productivity throughout the day as this reduces the amount of energy wasted concentrating on your own appearance and face during meetings (Shockley et al, 2021). This also allows more focus on the content of the meeting itself. In addition to this, research suggests that the feeling of being constantly “watched” leads to increased feelings of distress, work-related stress, anxiety and a decline in creativity as employees worry about being watched and judged (Ball, 2010).

Striking the Right Balance

Mediating the effects of surveillance and monitoring is extremely important and it seems that a balance must be struck to allow employees an environment that encourages creativity, autonomy and lower stress levels, whilst still giving managers the best chance to foster a productive workforce from a distance. Many companies started lockdown by adding in numerous daily “meets”, company “happy hours” and other compulsory events to log on to, just to ensure everyone was in the place they were supposed to be. However, such tactics do little for employee productivity and simply decrease motivation for the whole of the day (Ball, 2010). Managers must assess what is most important for their workforce and this will often be based on a variety of factors, such as industry type, training level of employees, previous office environment and so forth. Managers should consider what is an important productivity metric for their industry as this could vary from customer satisfaction, lead generation, lines of code written per hour or increases in sales and site traffic. KPIs should be agreed and set with employees, discussing expectations and what kind of information will be tracked. If employees are all on the same page and apps such as Time Doctor are used non-invasively, tasks can be tracked and ticked off while individuals can update their colleagues on one, cloud-based system of their progress. This provides accountability, a feeling of team collaboration, a feeling of collective striving and can even foster healthy competition in more sales-driven environments, all whilst allowing a manager to monitor the team to ensure goals are being met. Big brother style monitoring may do little but see staff anxiety rise, make creativity fall and your best employees may start to seek out a new, less invasive manager at a rival firm.  

About Matt Savage

Matthew Savage is an associate Triage Practitioner, has an MSc in Psychology, is a qualified personal trainer, and has worked within the field of cognitive rehabilitation for 5 years. He is an FA qualified football coach, with a keen interest in moral behaviour and wellbeing within team sports. 

References 

Ball K. (2010). Workplace surveillance: an overview, Labor History, 51:1,87-106

Kruse D. & Blasi J. (1995). Employee Ownership, Employee Attitudes, and Firm Performance. NBER Working Papers 5277, National Bureau of Economic Research, Inc.

Office of National Statistics. (2020). Homeworking in the UK Labour Market: 2020

Shockley, K. M., Gabriel, A. S., Robertson, D., Rosen, C. C., Chawla, N., Ganster, M. L., & Ezerins, M. E. (2021). The fatiguing effects of camera use in virtual meetings: A within-person field experiment. The Journal of applied psychology, 106(8), 1137–1155

Stephen J. Frenkel, May Tam, Marek Korczynski & Karen Shire (1998) Beyond bureaucracy? Work organization in call centres, The International Journal of Human Resource Management, 9:6, 957-979

Tracking and Monitoring Employees

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