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Employee Monitoring in the Workplace: A Necessary Evil?



The days of the 9-5 office routine are fading faster than ever. The modern workforce thrives on flexibility, and thanks to technological advancements, the concept of a physical office is being redefined.

Remote work is surging, and traditional office hierarchies are dissolving as we talk about it. Estimates suggest over 70% of professionals will experience some form of remote work by 2025 (source: statista). But with this newfound freedom comes a question that has plagued employers since the dawn of remote work: How do we monitor employee productivity in a world where the water cooler has been replaced by a Slack channel?

For many companies, the answer is surveillance, meaning employee monitoring in the workplace. Software tracks and records our keystrokes, monitors email, and even logs in during refreshment breaks. While supporters of employee monitoring argue that it is a necessary evil to promote accountability, I propose a different perspective: surveillance is not just a privacy breach, it is rather a recipe for disengagement.

Think about it this way. As humans, we have a fundamental need for trust and autonomy. When constantly monitored, it sends a clear message: we’re not trusted to do our jobs. This breeds resentment, reduces morale, and ultimately leads to decreased productivity.

A 2020 study by the University of California, Irvine found a direct correlation between micromanagement and employee performance. Employees who felt like their every move was tracked were 23% less productive. On the other hand, a Harvard Business Review study showed a positive correlation between trust and productivity. Employees who reported high levels of trust in their managers were 12% more productive. The data is clear, and the numbers prove that building trust, not fear, is the key to a sustainable workforce.

But what about the companies that swear by monitoring software? They often cite the need to prevent data breaches and ensure employees are using their time appropriately. These are valid concerns, but there are better ways to address and address them.

Instead of relying on a digital blanket for everything, companies should emphasize building a culture of transparency and open communication. Clearly defined expectations and regular performance reviews can go a long way in ensuring employees are on the right track. Additionally, investing in robust cybersecurity measures and providing employees with clear guidelines on data usage can significantly reduce the risk of data infringement and many more related cyber crimes.

Let’s have a look at the scenario with a hypothetical example of employee monitoring in the workplace:

Here’s a real-world scene of a case study based on how trust building can improve a work environment. XYZ Corporation, a software development company, used to have a strict monitoring policy. Employees felt like their every action was scrutinized, leading to a culture of fear and distrust. As a result, morale plummeted, and productivity suffered.

When the company decided to scrap, or rather limit, the execution of the monitoring software and focus on cultivating trust, things turned around dramatically. They implemented clear communication channels, provided regular feedback, and empowered employees to take ownership of their work. The result? A happier, more productive workforce and a significant boost in innovation.

This instance of XYZ corporation is a testament to the power of trust. When we treat employees like responsible adults, they tend to act like them. While there will always be a need for some oversight, surveillance should be a last resort, not the first line of defense. By fostering a trust and open communication culture, companies can create a work environment where employees feel valued, engaged, and, ultimately, more productive.

Nonetheless, above all the other things, employee disengagement comes at a cost.

The consequences of a disengaged remote workforce go far beyond hurt sentiments. A 2017 Gallup study found that disengaged employees cost the US economy a staggering $1 trillion to $3.5 trillion per year in lost productivity, theft, and absenteeism. Employee monitoring in the workplace, if it creates disengagement, can become a significant financial burden for companies.

The rise of employee monitoring apps with privacy concerns

While some monitoring software focuses on productivity, others explore employee communications and even personal computer use. This raises serious privacy concerns. In 2023, the Pew Research Center, through a study, found that a staggering 74% of workers are concerned about their employer monitoring their online activity or communications.

Companies that implement such intrusive monitoring programs and strategies risk damaging employee trust and facing legal repercussions. Several states have already enacted legislation restricting employee monitoring practices, and more are likely to follow suit.

Alternatives to monitoring software

As seems to be the case, there are several alternative strategies companies can employ to ensure better employee performance and relationship building without resorting to intrusive monitoring;

  • Goal settings and OKRs: To generate a sense of accountability and ownership for their work, implement clear goal-setting frameworks like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) that align individual employee goals with overall company objectives.
  • Training and development: Employees who feel they have the skills and knowledge to succeed are likely to be engaged and productive. Invest in training programs and opportunities for professional development to keep your workforce sharp and motivated.
  • Focus on outcomes instead of activity and working time: Shifting the focus from monitoring activity (like keystrokes) to measuring outcomes and results empowers employees to find the most efficient way to complete their tasks.
  • Employee recognition programs: Recognition programs can be simple, inexpensive, yet highly effective in boosting morale and engagement. When you encourage and recognize them for exceeding expectations at work, it can motivate them greatly and to surpass more achievements.

The concept of “employee monitoring” may need to be completely redefined. However, by acknowledging the above considerations, the conversation around employee monitoring in the workplace can be more comprehensive and lead to better workplace practices.

So, the next time you consider implementing employee monitoring software, ask yourself this: is it really necessary, or are you simply following the trend by the masses and forming a ground for employee disengagement? The choice is yours, but the data and the notion are clear.


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