Posted September 22, 2021 by Mark Perna
Companies are considering tools to monitor employee activity, especially that of remote workers. But the cost in employee trust might be more than they’re willing to pay. Mark’s article, “Does Your Employer Trust You? Why Surveillance Is The Dark Underbelly Of Remote Work,” published at Forbes.com on September 14, 2021.
With retail giant Amazon considering intensive monitoring of its customer service workers—down to the level of keyboard and mouse strokes—it seems that workplace surveillance is going mainstream. But why?
Amazon’s confidential document cites security concerns as the impetus for this level of employee monitoring (and no doubt all of us who purchase from Amazon appreciate the effort to safeguard our personal data). But imagine the emotions of Amazon’s employees, who may soon face daily scrutiny of—literally—their every move. In that situation, how trusted would you feel?
In the midst of a record talent shortage when employers must court talent more carefully than ever, intrusive Big-Brother tactics can do more to destroy trust than almost any other method. “No good relationship has ever been built on distrust,” says Geoff Webb, VP at isolved. “Employees are usually aware that they are being monitored, and this immediately establishes a relationship in which the employer is essentially saying ‘we can’t trust you, so we will monitor your activity.’ It’s not a recipe for long-term success.”
Dr. Phillip Meade, co-owner of Gallaher Edge and author of The Missing Links, agrees that a lack of trust is a major problem in the workforce today. Instead, he argues, employers should be working toward a “high-trust work environment” where leaders and employees feel comfortable and safe showing up as their authentic selves. “In a high-trust work environment, employees are typically more engaged within the workplace culture, resulting in more productivity and collaboration with peers,” he says.
Today more than ever, businesses are in a constant battle to find, attract and retain the best people. “Yet at the very time that employees have more opportunities than ever to openly discuss their employers on public forums, businesses may be looking at tools that engender a lack of trust between them and their key talent,” says Webb. “It can be a colossal blunder.”
What is the goal of employee surveillance? Employers flirting with this technology—that can include Internet usage logs, email monitoring, call recordings, social media monitoring and activity trackers, among others—might argue that these methods can help them trust their workers. “If you’re being trustworthy, why would you mind being checked on?” they might say. But this argument misses the fact that trust goes both ways. Trust generates trust—and the same is true for distrust.
Meade says that some companies assume their ability to trust their employees is somehow dependent on their ability to see them. “Because they can walk by a cubicle and see someone sitting there, that means they are working—and because they can’t see an employee at home, that means they aren’t working,” he says. “Both are an illusion.”
The fallacy that activity equals productivity is a pervasive one, Webb says. “Watching how often employees use their keyboard or mouse, monitoring their chat, tracking their web usage and so on, are all simply replacing metrics that are based on outcomes—what the business wants—with metrics based on activity,” he says. “Activity is easier to measure but often of no real indication that the employee is being genuinely productive.”
So if monitoring raw activity isn’t effective, what is? Webb says businesses must rethink their success metrics to include engagement. Meade agrees: “Business leaders and employers want and need motivated and engaged employees to run a successful business, as this will lead to higher productivity as well as employee retention.”
Unfortunately, remote work seems to magnify both the need for and pitfalls of workplace surveillance. On one hand, employers (like Amazon) worry about security incidents that seem more likely in uncontrolled environments outside the office. But while it’s one thing to be monitored in the office, in the employee’s home “it can feel positively intrusive,” says Webb. “It’s difficult at best to build relationships digitally—and that becomes far more difficult when both parties fear every word (spoken or typed) is being monitored and scrutinized.
“Employees are already feeling less engaged and less connected to their employer,” he continues. “Monitoring technology can be seen as a confirmation that employees aren’t trusted, and so immediately further disengage employees at precisely the time employers should be working hard to build bridges and keep them empowered and engaged.”
“In a remote environment, trust is especially essential,” Meade adds. “Meeting face-to-face isn’t always an option, but facilitating virtual interactions is still effective in creating an effective culture and team cohesion. People feel cohesion when they trust one another. Trust in the virtual environment will allow employees to head in the right direction together to accomplish results regularly.”
Additionally, employees will often go to great lengths to circumvent monitoring technology. “This can have unintended and sometimes destructive consequences, including further opening the business up to security breaches of a far more serious nature than someone browsing Facebook on a company computer,” says Webb.
Of course, not all monitoring is automatically bad. For operations that require the handling of highly sensitive information, monitoring is not optional; it’s a requirement to stay in business. “An employee who is told ‘you handle sensitive data and while you are accessing it, we have to monitor activity to keep that data safe’ is far more likely to see this as a reasonable request than one who discovers there is a keystroke monitor on their system for no greater reason than their manager doesn’t trust them,” warns Webb.
“Like all security technology, employee monitoring tools have their place, but they must be used carefully and in a spirit of cooperation and transparency,” Webb says. Meade makes a similar point, advising employers to use the introduction of some surveillance to actually build employee trust rather than destroy it. How? “By working together with employees to agree on outputs that will define productivity.”
According to Webb, businesses need to remember that they are engaged in a very human relationship. “Obviously, there are limits that need to be in place, behaviors that cannot be tolerated and technical controls that are understandable and acceptable to all parties,” says Webb. “But these controls should be understood and transparent and focused on protecting everyone from harm, not just squeezing a few more minutes of productivity out of the workforce.”
By its very nature, trust involves risk. So how can we respond constructively when there’s a perceived breach of faith—on either side? “If an employee can’t be trusted to deliver what’s needed, then that becomes a trigger for management to intervene and establish a plan for change,” says Webb.
When dealing with an instance of an employee breaking trust, Meade warns organizations to keep the big picture in mind. “Avoid overreacting and responding in a way that will have negative impacts on the trust and openness of other employees,” he advises. “In the vast majority of cases the impact of that single incidence of broken trust will pale in comparison to the massive gains from a culture of trust when multiplied across an entire organization.”
The path forward is a little less clear for employees who feel they are distrusted and monitored excessively. “They must decide to what extent that is a problem for them and whether they want to work for an employer who is signaling a lack of trust,” says Webb. “Once employees know they are being monitored, especially to an unreasonable degree, trust can evaporate.”
Webb believes that while trust is an unusual commodity in human relationships, it’s also foundational to us as a species. “We dislike those we cannot trust, and trust those we like,” he says. “To effectively work cooperatively requires a significant degree of trust and transparency.”
One powerful strategy to build trust, says Meade, is identifying and agreeing to a common higher purpose. “When either side believes that the other primarily has its own interests at heart, it will be difficult or impossible to foster trust,” he says. “But when both know that they share a common interest or ‘greater good’ that they are working toward, it can provide a reason to trust the others’ motives.”
In a fast-changing employment landscape, surveillance is becoming the dark underbelly of remote work. Companies may question if they can afford to trust their workers, especially those who are remote. But as the war for talent heats up, the real question is: can they afford not to?