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By: Peter Lauria
The worker’s smartphone radiates a blue glow through the dark bedroom. It’s 2 am, and the light is enough to awaken even the soundest sleeper. But it’s not a text or email or call. It’s actually the worker’s company running a data download on his activity the previous day.
Once upon a time, leaders had an easy way to monitor their staff’s activity—they just walked the hallways. But in an era in which many firms have moved to either hybrid or remote work, such face-to-face encounters have become less and less frequent. A new, controversial solution is emerging: technology. Though few workers are aware of it, surveillance has picked up dramatically and will likely only grow since much of it, including the smartphone download, is legal and increasingly simple to run. “Surveillance technology used to require huge, complex systems,” says Jan vom Brocke, chair of business process management at the University of Liechtenstein. “Now all you need is a smart device or webcam.”
Today, the most widely available technology centers around keystroke counting, which companies use to monitor the firm-issued laptops workers have at home. Voice recognition and text scanning have picked up some, too. And smartphones and computers can be turned on remotely to capture an endless array of employee data. But experts are predicting even more high-tech tracking, such as clocking the force and speed of typing and mouse movements, all which can measure mood and emotions.
Then there is high-tech mind reading. Though its use by companies is still in the early stages, artificial intelligence can detect emotion and predict behavior by analyzing the facial expressions of employees. Webcams, says vom Brocke, can be programmed to take pictures every five or 10 minutes, for instance. The images are then streamed over a server where they are analyzed and fed back into the system to determine an employee’s stress, anxiety, fatigue, enthusiasm, and so forth. One source described a client whose data scientists have what they call a “wall of faces”—rotating images of employees’ faces that they monitor during the day.
As word of all this spreads, experts predict that many workers won’t be happy, and that debates over privacy will mount. “Companies are using technology to embed themselves in employees’ lives in a way that goes far beyond anything we’ve seen before,” says J.S. Nelson, a visiting professor of law and business ethics at Harvard and a book author on workplace surveillance. But supporters of the technology say it’s being used less to keep tabs on workers and more to invest in their well-being. Listening to calls and parsing the words used in an email or Slack conversation allows managers to proactively address burnout, fatigue, and other issues before they arise. It also allows managers to reward those who have gone the extra mile in their roles.
Moreover, say proponents, the increased use of surveillance can not only reveal areas requiring more training and development, but also help improve performance and productivity. Studies show that employee well-being directly relates to productivity. “Monitoring tools can help improve engagement and make employees more effective and efficient without wearing them out,” says Brian Manusama, a former Gartner AI analyst and current chief strategy officer at digital communications company CM.com.
But there is a potential cost, of course, especially if surveillance is misused. As Nelson cautions, just because the technology is available doesn’t mean companies have to use it. Knowledge workers, says Nelson, are paid for their ideas, but if they are going to be judged by how many times they move their mouse, they are going to do that instead of coming up with ideas. “A lot of times managers get enamored with the technology without truly understanding its impact,” she says.