Big Brother — Or Smart Monitoring?

In a move certain to stir debate, some firms are deploying spyware to track workers’ productivity and overall operations.

By the millions, workers at all levels have headed home to perform their jobs. Some wondered if their managers and firms knew they were still going at it strong, making calls and churning out reports. Turns out, the firms may know quite a bit about everyone’s level of performance.

In a move certain to raise privacy issues and upset some but not others, a small number of organizations are deploying so-called spyware to monitor the emails employees send and websites they visit, and taking pictures of their computer screens. Critics say the surveillance threatens to create a Big Brother–type atmosphere that could result in mistrust and disengagement, while others see it as an objective measuring guide that some employees who work long hours might not mind.

“At some point in the future, it’s going to be necessary to address employee productivity and contributions to determine compensation,” says Craig Stephenson, a senior client partner at Korn Ferry and managing director of the firm’s North American CIO/CTO practice. He adds that monitoring software can aid organizations in identifying potential gaps in current leadership and possible future leaders.

Still, few doubt that the use of such software—already in operation at some offices before the pandemic—is a risky proposition. “It feels a little tone-deaf,” says Korn Ferry senior director Mark Royal. He worries about long-term repercussions, from causing talent to flee post-crisis because of perceived mistrust, or preventing organizations that were considering cutting back on office space in favor of remote work from doing so. “Employees might just decide it is easier to come into the office than work from home and be subject to monitoring software because of this experience,” says Royal.

The debate is just the latest example of how the business world has had to adjust to today’s difficult new normal. Earlier on, sending employees home to work created—and still creates—a host of security issues when sensitive data is emailed from home workstations. Now, organizations find themselves looking for ways of monitoring remote work not only to check on people but, more importantly, to help leaders get a handle on where resources are needed, build flexibility into employees’ schedules, and maintain business continuity.

In his view, Royal says leaders could think more creatively about ways to measure employee output other than the standard activity measured by spyware. “What matters is that the work gets done, not when it gets done,” he says. Taking that approach is more likely to provide an increase in engagement and spark personal motivation among employees than monitoring productivity metrics. “For leaders in the current situation, it’s a matter of helping people help you,” says Royal.