Briefings Magazine

The Surveillance Paradox

Since remote work has become the norm, digital employee monitoring has taken on new importance—and is raising concerns around employee privacy.

See the latest issue of Briefings at newsstands or read in our new format here.

By Vindhya Burugupalli

Employee monitoring is not a foreign concept: workers are used to cameras in the office and managers wandering the halls, perhaps even peeking over shoulders. But since remote work has become the norm over the last two years, digital employee monitoring has taken on a new importance—and it is raising concerns around keeping employee trust and protecting their privacy. That’s no easy trick, experts say. Monitoring “is part of a manager’s job when we’re in-person,” says Elizabeth Lyons, a management professor at the University of California, San Diego. “The question here is how it should be used now.”

With remote work likely here to stay in some capacity, companies are increasingly turning to AI-powered technology, often called tattleware, to monitor and measure employee productivity. Through tattleware, companies can keep tabs on remote workers by surveilling webcams, listening in through microphones, taking random screen grabs, and tracking keyboard use and keystrokes. Demand for employee-monitoring technology has shot up by 58 percent since the advent of the pandemic. Currently, 78 percent of employers use digital surveillance tools, despite 83 percent of them citing ethical concerns with it.

The latest research has found that monitoring remote workers aids in increasing productivity when it is exercised with certain considerations. It isn’t solely the technology that makes a difference, but rather how managers interact with it, says Lyons. According to her study, when managers used findings from monitoring tools to provide constructive feedback, employee performance improved. It also raised morale, as employees felt their work was being valued. However, the cost of excessive monitoring is a loss of employee trust. “There is a risk that it can drive down employee morale, if it’s perceived as signaling to employees that their employers don’t trust them,” says Lyons.

Experts say most employees will be comfortable with monitoring if the data collected is relevant for business goals and their personal information isn’t being surveilled. The key is to increase transparency and collaboration, and ensure that employees understand the value of the data, says Lyons. Additionally, it’s crucial for companies to establish clear policies on the usage of surveillance tools, says Rick Sklarin, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry’s Silicon Valley practice. “There are gray areas between notifying employees that they will be monitored and explicitly defining how that’ll happen,” says Sklarin. “It’s really important for companies to disclose how far they’re going to go.”

In the end, managers have to decide if the cost of surveillance strategies is worth it by evaluating performance at the highest levels, says Sklarin. Since going remote, “many companies are finding that they have significant productivity increases, not decreases,” he says.

Download PDF