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The rise of workplace surveillance


Many have reluctantly accepted that the guilty pleasure of endlessly scrolling down their social media app of choice will come at a price. After all, if you're not paying for the product, you are the product. Every selfie, swipe, and click will be used to create a permanent digital record to train algorithms to provide you with the more personalized experiences that you have come to expect.

Assuming your partner has not secretly installed stalkerware on your phone, and your smart home has not betrayed you, your place of work is still safe from prying eyes. Or is it?

A lack of trust and maybe a few control issues traditionally prevented managers from enabling their teams to work remotely. But their hand was forced with the arrival of COVID-19.

2020 will be remembered as the game-changer moment where teams began a global work-from-home experiment. Some organizations adapted better to the transition than others. But many managers struggled to shake off their trust issues, and big tech is providing solutions to fuel that paranoia.

Do you know your productivity score?

There are many examples of companies that have secretly installed employee monitoring software on corporate devices to track user activity and computer usage. But Microsoft recently introduced its controversial Productivity Score tool. Predictably, empowering employers, and managers to analyze every employee's activities via 73 pieces of granular data was not welcomed by the global workforce.

Microsoft told the Guardian that the insights were merely intended to help organizations make the most of their technology investments by addressing common pain points. But it was too late, and the damage was done. Further revelations followed, which suggested workplace surveillance is here to stay and it is changing everything. 

For example, when attending a virtual meeting or conference call, have you ever attempted to multitask by checking your messages or browsing the internet? The BBC reported last month that Microsoft had also filed a patent to record and score meetings on attendees' body language. 

Sensors could determine who attended, who contributed the most and even monitor speech patterns to determine if an attendee was bored or fatigued.

The normalization of employee surveillance

A recent survey revealed that one in five employers (20 percent) actively monitored remote workers or were planning on doing so. The rise of invasive workplace surveillance schemes that rate employees' performance through the use of arbitrary metrics and so-called people analytics could lead employers into dangerous territory.

Despite the best intentions, employee monitoring is just a digital upgrade of micromanagement.

The methods may change, but the outcome will still predictably be counterproductive and toxic. We have finally stopped debating the benefits of working from home vs. in the office. Teams are now thinking bigger and demanding a more hybrid approach to work that enables them to work from everywhere.

Depending on our personal needs and the task at hand, hybrid work provides teams with the flexibility they need. But other secret ingredients to nurturing a vibrant team spirit is trust, sociability, and independence. The future of management is arguably self-management rather than productivity scores. 

Supporting digital wellbeing

For the most part, employees are far from lazy when they are working from home. In fact, many end up overcompensating. It's not uncommon not to take breaks and remain online during the evening, working far beyond their working hours. 

 The feeling of being permanently tethered to the office can take its toll on employees' mental and physical health. 

The added pressures of productivity scores could further pile on the pressure and run the risk of sending workers on a one-way trip to burnout. Maybe, it's time for each of us to reflect and redefine our relationship with technology and the increasing list of always connected collaboration platforms.

These are just a few of the reasons why Apps2Digital used similar technology to support employees' mental and physical health in a measurable way rather than spying on them for the wrong reasons. Its digital wellbeing app helps teams understand when they have spent too much time using applications and even suggest when an employee needs to take a break.

The events of the last twelve months have provided an opportunity to think and work differently. Providing remote workers with a holistic view of how they interact with their digital world and how it impacts their wellbeing feels much more progressive than resurrecting micromanagement. Although this fresh approach will sound daunting to many organizations, the alternatives are a much scarier prospect.

The dangerous path of surveillance in the workplace

This year, it was reported that Clearview AI scraped 3 billion selfies from social media platforms to train facial recognition algorithms used by law enforcement agencies. But we failed to comprehend how this seminal moment delivered an early warning of how the internet was evolving into a global surveillance system.

For every positive digital wellness approach, there will be many businesses or even governments wanting a productivity score or social credit system.

Technology works best when it breaks down barriers and brings people together to collaborate seamlessly. But we are in danger of losing our way and unlocking something much more sinister.

As a child, I dreamt of an exciting future of hoverboards, teleportation, flying cars, and a Jetsons lifestyle. But the future isn't what it used to be, and the time has come for difficult conversations around digital human rights to avoid sleepwalking into a bone-chilling dystopia.

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