From recorded keystrokes to activated cameras: how much does your employer know about you?

Although many have accused the rise of automated HR of dehumanizing the workplace, most are becoming increasingly concerned that the increase in workplace surveillance and monitoring of employees has gone too far.

We all have a digital footprint bigger than we can comprehend. Four years ago, it was revealed that Facebook had more than 52,000 data points on every user, and a leaked report also suggested that the social media platform knew when teenagers felt insecure and needed a confidence boost. Elsewhere, our next movie or song choice will likely be selected by an algorithm that knows us better than we know ourselves. But what does our data reveal about us in the workplace?

The rise of employee monitoring software

Since the pandemic, computer monitoring software has been thrust into the spotlight as managers who want to retain control over remote working employees looked for new solutions to measure productivity from afar. Microsoft attempted to jump on this trend by unveiling a tool that gave every employee a 'Productivity Score' based on how often users sent emails and attended video meetings. But the idea of spying on staff to identify individuals who weren't contributing quickly caused a backlash forcing the software giant to backtrack.

Although Microsoft was forced to retreat, there was no shortage of startups eager to pick up the baton and run with it. By recording digital activity such as keystrokes, mouse movements, and web activity, managers can now obtain a wealth of data from every employee. Some solutions also offer the ability to take screenshots or activate microphones and webcams to record activity. Some even snitch on any worker who dares to eat or drink while working.

Outside the traditional office, deskless workers are experiencing a rise in wearable technology that tracks their every move and records biometric data. But what happens when the biometric data records a sluggish performance in a warehouse and suggests it's because a wearable recorded that the employee was in a bar until 1 am? Once again, it highlights the dangers of sleepwalking into a dystopian future.

Until recently, making sense of thousands of data points on every individual would have been too cumbersome. But artificial intelligence (AI) changed everything by unlocking the ability to uncover hidden insights from every mouse click via complex algorithms. As a result,

AI, machine learning, and predictive analytics are crucial in securing your next role and how well you progress in a company.

Why employee monitoring is backfiring

A recent report revealed that continuously monitored employees are far more likely to break the rules than non-monitored employees. Rather than nudge workers toward greater productivity, they are rebelling by taking unapproved breaks, disregarding instructions, working slower, or even purchasing mouse movers to game the system to their advantage.

Monitoring employees clearly shows that they are not trusted, making employees distrust their employer. So it should be no surprise that spying on staff is the quickest way to lose their goodwill, which is never good news. For example, if you attempt to chain someone to their laptop 9-5 with only a 30-minute break, they are much more likely to clock off at 5:01 and not log back in and finish the task they started or check their emails over the weekend.

Measuring inputs such as keystrokes and mouse clicks on computers do not prove anything other than presenteeism. It’s also the quickest way of losing the goodwill that enables businesses to thrive. By contrast, managers would get far more out of their teams by building trust and measuring the outputs that provide business value.

The combination of the great resignation and a global tech skills shortage means that employees are now searching for an employer with the same values. For these reasons alone, micro-management-driven technology will only drive away high performers and fail to deliver on the promises of the software vendor peddling these intrusive monitoring systems.

Is there ever a right way to monitor employees?

In the right hands combining AI, machine learning, and human thinking can be a tool for good to eradicate harmful biases, policies, and practices in the workplace. It also can reduce accidents, boost performance and even improve employee well-being. But there is also an argument that this approach is unwittingly taking us toward a surveillance state where every movement from toilet breaks to buying a coffee becomes a data point used to generate a daily report on how productive we are.

If all this sounds a little far-fetched, there are many examples of how governments are using technology to monitor citizens and use the information to calculate "social credit" scores. Those that do not comply face restrictions around what they are allowed to purchase, where they choose to live, and the places they can travel.

Examples of how authorities monitor citizens can be found in every corner of the world. For instance, Chinese scientists recently revealed "mind-reading" AI that leverages facial expressions and brain waves to identify who is loyal to the Chinese Communist Party and who isn't. In Europe and the US, concerns around predictive policing and pre-crime algorithms are rising. With this in mind, can you imagine the impact of the same monitoring technology in the workplace?

These examples should provide every business with a timely warning about the actual costs of allowing technology and algorithms to make consequential decisions based on a score that merely reduces human beings to a number on a screen.

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