Employee surveillance kills culture. Dead.

16 January 2022 By Travis Schultz

The biggest risk to employers who over-monitor staff is the destruction of employee confidence and culture, writes Travis Schultz.

In our post-pandemic world, flexibility, telecommuting, and work-from-home have morphed from being the luxurious arrangement for a fortunate few into a non-negotiable expectation of a large proportion of office-based workers. Rolling lockdowns have proven the naysayers wrong; our team members can be productive when working remotely.

However, with this new-found employee freedom from workplace shackles has come a push by many employers to increase their surveillance of staff through a range of technologies – high-tech methods that inform management about productivity. Such surveillance is often poorly executed and can be highly destructive, breaking trust and confidence.

Indeed, it begs the question – is the inevitable cost to culture a price too high for sleuthing organisations to bear?

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This superintendence by stealth started well before the pandemic and has surged with the absence of “bums on seats” under the watchful eye of management. Workers’ entitlement to privacy and seclusion was firstly abrogated by CCTV and later, through web browsing and email monitoring. In more recent times, the level of sophistication of managerial stalking has ramped up with the advent of software that monitors keystrokes, tracks user activity, blocks content, captures random screenshots and then produces reports for management.

You’d think it was a scene described in a dystopian George Orwell novel if it wasn’t actually playing out in workplaces around the globe!

To my mind, the biggest risk to employers who utilise these forms of surveillance is the destruction of employee confidence and culture – especially those corporates who treat their staff like idiots and put a spin on their monitoring by pretending that it’s done for the benefit of the team.

From my perspective, one of the worst examples of this can be found in time-costing – an age-old approach used by professional services firms to levy fees for their employee’s time. For decades, staff have been told that it’s used just for billing clients because it’s transparent and objectively measurable. The reality is that clients may agree to it yet still curse their professional advisers when backs are turned.

For those on the paying end, there is no measurable value in a billable unit on a timesheet – especially when there is any number of professionals in the firm purporting to be working on a job simultaneously. They suspect the truth – that there is padding going on from time to time and that often they’re paying for junior advisers to be trained “on the job”.

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To management, the most important aspect of time-recording is the insight it gives into how staff are spending their time, how productive they are and, more importantly, when they are not on the tools. It’s monitoring 101. It helps the organisation decide who to reward with productivity bonuses – and also alerts HR to those whose performance needs to be managed!

When the pandemic isolated staff to their kitchen tables, horror stories of employers behaving badly abounded – some issued policies that required staff to keep their laptop cameras on at all times, whilst others installed awareness technology – programs such as Teramind, InterGuard, Controlio, Work Examiner, or ActivTrak – some of which report keystrokes, track non-active time and even take random screenshots.

I even heard stories of employers geo-tracking their staff’s mobiles, monitoring their use of social media and imposing rigid reporting protocols! Ironically, while embarking on these surveillance measures, few of those in C-Suites seemed concerned about the cultural impact with their “trust but verify” mantras.

I have to admit that in times past, I was a bit of a bums on seats kind of guy. I felt comforted by the optics of team members beavering away at their desks, and I rejoiced with the clattering notes of fingers clunking noisy keystrokes in a syncopated rhythm. I was wrong. The world has changed. Forever.

Spying on your team might excite those in the corner offices in the proverbial ivory towers, yet nothing destroys trust like Big Brother. Never before has staff retention been so important. And never before has organisational culture been so influential in avoiding the costs associated with recruitment and onboarding. Millennials will see hybrid work arrangements as normal, and WFH has become more than just an acronym.

And, with these shifts comes a need for a change in mindset – as employers, we need to trust our staff to do the right thing and resist the urge to maintain a watchful eye from afar.

I’ve seen some interesting behaviours in my own firm since COVID struck, and remote work has been a necessity. We strongly believe in transparency, respect, trust and “work/life synchronisation” – working how and when it best fits in our individual circumstances, as long as client and colleagues needs are met. The team has been very accepting of others having their own routines.

However, if, over time, they form the view that someone is “taking the piss, without any input from the leadership team, they have no hesitation in letting the recalcitrant know – though not in a Lord of the Flies kind of way.

It’s been enlightening to observe the way that the team seemingly manages each other and ensures that expectations and values are well understood. Who needs monitoring when trusted employees feel an innate responsibility to meet client, colleague and organisational needs? It seems Peter Drucker was right when he suggested that “culture eats strategy for breakfast”!

Travis Schultz is the managing partner of Travis Schultz & Partners. 

Employee surveillance kills culture. Dead.
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