Has workplace surveillance gone too far?

Companies that genuinely want to transform business performance and retain talent need to re-evaluate the relationship between surveillance tech and their workers.

After the global workforce completed a remote-working experiment, many have realized that after years of wishing for it, the grass is not always greener on the other side. Despite the positives, some employees found themselves overcompensating as they immediately responded to a barrage of notifications across a myriad of devices for 16 hours a day. Despite workers regularly checking in outside of their shift, some organizations still don't trust their staff.

Senior management teams are responsible for a 5,000% increase in search terms such as "work from home monitoring tools." Somewhere along the way, an increasing number of employees lost the right to disconnect. Some bosses proudly shared with the media how they monitor their staff by taking screenshots and checking their keystrokes throughout the day. Others took it a step further by watching remote workers via specialist webcams designed to identify home working infractions.

The road to workplace surveillance

As we head to a hybrid approach to working, we can expect our jobs to continuously evolve. But there is an argument that whether your colleagues are two cubicles away from you, on a separate floor, or working from home, we have been communicating with our colleagues remotely for longer than we might have realised.

Employees have also been tracked in the workplace for many years. Monitoring web activity during a shift quickly paved the way for digital footprint technologies that can monitor everything from mouse movement to AI email analysis that helps keep a watchful eye on productivity levels. But inviting cameras into our homes to monitor every physical action is widely seen as intrusive and a step too far.

Once justified for security or regulatory compliance purposes, surveillance tools have now set their sights on productivity monitoring. But where do we draw the line?

Most workers would accept that their employers will want visibility of when they are online and when they are actively working. However, new tools are drifting into uncomfortable territory where managers can see everything you do and even listen to your phone calls.

Employees fight back

Remote workers around the world have joined forces to voice their frustrations around company screensavers kicking in every few minutes and tracking software that checks for mouse movement. Human ingenuity can be found flourishing on Reddit as community members share ways to beat surveillance tech, often with amusing results:

With home surveillance on the rise for remote workers, many feel pressured into remaining visible all the time to promote a perception that they have a strong work ethic. But rather than increasing productivity, surveillance is ushering in digital presenteeism where everyone is busy trying to look busy without actually working. 

The game of cat and mouse between employees and their employers has seen many workers gathering on WhatsApp group chats on their personal devices to discuss their tactics and avoid the watchful eye of their boss. The global pandemic was supposed to usher in a new era of empathy and compassion. The introduction of surveillance tech runs the risk of causing the relationship between staff and their employer to further break down, all of which is ultimately bad for business.

Cutting down surveillance to rebuild trust

Trust issues in any relationship will only be exacerbated by surveillance rather than resolving anything. The problem with a tech-only approach is that employers are removing the human aspect to HR. Although monitoring tools might identify if something is wrong, micromanagers will make a bad situation even worse.

To serve a diverse audience, every company now needs to bring people together and celebrate diversity of thought. Collaboration requires a culture of diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging rather than surveillance software. In an age of digital communication, workers are looking to their employers to create safe spaces and a listening culture where they can speak openly without fear of reprisals.

Technology works best when it brings people together. It can improve collaboration and productivity. It can even ensure that leaders are leveraging their best talent. When combined with a more caring approach to leadership with regular communication, clear deliverables, and accountability, managers will get the most out of their people.

Re-examining the relationship between technology and remote workers

It’s beginning to feel that there are few genuinely private spaces left in our lives. If your employees know you care about them and want to help them be the best version of themselves, they will move mountains for you. By contrast, if you install an all-seeing eye in their homes and analyse every mouse movement, keystrokes and treat them as slackers, it will only end one way.

Surveillance highlights a symptom of a bad relationship between the employer and employee.

If businesses are serious about thriving and surviving in a post-covid world, they should invest in training management teams to support employees rather than surveillance tools. A caring leader who inspires teams combined with digital tools that enable employees to work anywhere and everywhere will have transformational capabilities at their fingertips.

Businesses that insist on monitoring social media use of employees outside of work, installing constantly watching webcams, asking staff to wear location tracking devices, or analysing how long they go to the toilet are all steps too far. Companies that genuinely want to transform business performance and retain talent should re-examine their relationship with technology and their staff.


Amber Latham
prefix 3 years ago
Although I totally agree with you about your findings. These surveillance techniques also could of been used to prove innocence in some cases but the problem is that nobody will speak openly about the above cases.

I know for a fact I was under surveillance at a previous address for a job that should of been mine. I was set up and if the surveillance was actually used in the courts they would of proved my innocence being that I did not have the piece of equipment that I was being accused of taking. This surveillance was used to watch me while they doctored their case against me and the agents at the top had taken my position prior to me being convicted which is against the constitution and theygot away with it.

If they are held accountable to their surveillance and we are aware of where they are using it. The we as the people could also benefit if we had the information to put it together to also protect ourselves. The problem is that they only choose to speak about it behind closed doors. This should never be allowed. The regulations should be changed so people are aware if they are under surveillance systems of any kind.
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