MAGAZINE: Are you spying on me?

Digital monitoring technology offers a solution for employers worried about the productivity of their workers during the pandemic, but snooping has a downside, say experts.

The office has become a fraught topic during this year of the coronavirus crisis, both for anxious investors eyeing a collapse in leasing demand and for occupiers forced to adapt to the abrupt disappearance of whole teams of staff.

Amid fears of falling productivity as the home replaces the office for millions of workers, some firms have turned to digital tools in a bid to monitor what their employees are doing while working from home. A plethora of software exists for tracking metrics such as hours spent online, to the number of minutes taken to complete a task. Demand for technology is rising during the pandemic, report manufacturers.

Zoom, the video conferencing website onto which millions of business meetings have migrated this year, offers its premium customers a tool called ‘attention tracking’, which alerts the host of a meeting if an attendee navigates away from the app for more than 30 seconds.

Time Doctor checks if staff are present at their work laptops, tracks web browsing activity and can even snap screenshots at intervals.

Meanwhile, ActivTrak can flag potential ‘compliance gaps’ in operations, while discreet software can observe and report behaviour, right down to tracking mouse clicks and eye movements at a screen via an always-on camera.

Indeed, the effectiveness of tools which claim to protect productivity might yet be an influence on the future of the office asset class.

Office space demands
If productivity remains stable and business performance is steady, then the case might diminish for paying rent to gather teams at an office in future. On the other hand, perhaps demand for office space will rise if staff object to being monitored in their own homes and instead favour working in a central location, where expectations of privacy are lower.

What if a firm gets a reputation for snooping on employees, how does that affect its image in the ‘war for talent?’

Using technology to monitor activity in the workplace is not new, particularly at professional services firms which execute large transactions, or where compliance rules regulate conduct. Meanwhile, a recent study by management consultancy firm Lane4 found that more than a fifth (28%) of all employees suffer from a lack of motivation since March, when the pandemic told hold in Europe. It suggests fears of falling productivity among out-of-office staff are not entirely baseless.

But could spy tools create compliance issues of a different kind for employers? Last month, the UK’s Financial Conduct Authority ruled that regulated firms should not spy on staff at home more than in the office. Elsewhere, the European Court of Human Rights has established employees have a right to privacy at work.

Doctor Ksenia Bakina, legal officer at Privacy International, says spying on staff at home risks being counter-productive for employers.

‘I think a backlash could definitely occur because we’re at a time when employees are vulnerable and living in fear of getting sick, worried about their family and the economic situation is unstable. This has a profound negative impact,’ she says.

‘Once we’re out of the coronavirus crisis, we may see that people who’ve been monitored might turn on their employers. They might take them to court, or file claims with data protection authorities.

‘When employers, instead of supporting their employees, magnify the negative consequence of Covid-19 by spying on staff, this is not going to foster a positive working environment. In fact, it will do the opposite.’

Employee engagement
So if using workplace spy tools risk damaging the business they are meant to protect, what are managers supposed to do?

Rick Kershaw is chief people officer at Peakon, a workplace productivity firm which rejects invasive monitoring in favour of fostering staff engagement via surveys on work-related topics which workers fill out. A recent Workplace Research Foundation found highly engaged employees are 38% more likely to have above-average productivity.

‘Implementing unnecessary, invasive, surveillance technologies will only create a culture of distrust and erode employee morale, says Kershaw. ‘This is because when you monitor employees, you take away their autonomy to work how and when works best for them.

‘Our data shows that highly engaged teams have better customer satisfaction, better retention and higher profitability,’ says Kershaw. ‘What we do is the exact antithesis of monitoring, but which results in better business outcomes, including higher productivity and morale.’


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