Human Resources

Big Brother is watching you: How tech is enabling bosses to monitor employees

If it sometimes feels like your boss or management are watching you like Big Brother, you may not be far wrong. Technology is increasingly allowing companies of all types to more closely monitor what their staff are doing. Tesco, for example, uses electronic armbands to track the movements of stock pickers in its warehouses in Ireland.

According to Professor Nita Farahany, who spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, “the armbands direct staff members around the warehouse and tell them which item to collect. They take a lot of the administration out of the job by automatically logging inventory rather than staff carrying clipboards to record items manually. The armbands made the job more efficient and the staff more productive. And the staff hated them.”

These arm bands are not the only wearable that allows employees to be monitored. The SmartCap is an Australian invention designed to monitor levels of fatigue in truck drivers and operators of heavy machinery in the mining industry. Despite a certain convenience inherent in such devices and a reality that says it makes things easier and more efficient, there is generally resistance to such monitoring from staff and it often negatively impacts morale.

Employee monitoring is nothing new. Most organisations routinely monitor employees’ use of email or internet services, for example, and digital policies are in place to ensure that employees know what companies are able to do with their data. However, the scope and nature of such employee monitoring devices is expanding due to increased technological capability.

Steve Mosser, CEO of Sensee, the UK's largest employer of home based workers, tells us all companies use technologies to monitor employees. “It’s certainly a booming niche to have monitoring apps on employees’ workstations that track their activities, but most importantly to monitor that they don’t slack by surfing the web and social media,” he says. “Running a business employing more than 800 home based workers, I know that no employee likes being watched over their shoulder. However, there are ways of monitoring without adopting the ‘Big Brother’ approach.” 

Mosser says that they have found that the more upfront and transparent they are as an employer about the necessity of monitoring, the more understanding and accepting employees are. “At the end of the day, we’re not monitoring to take away their privacy, but to ensure that things get done, on time, and to the quality standards our clients set. Through our TeamTonic system, we monitor ‘passively’ by tracking desktop patterns and only trigger alerts if something is amiss,” he says, adding that the philosophy is to monitor the outputs, not the process.

As an example of newer forms of monitoring, Laurie Padua, Director of Technology and Operations Consulting at Alexander Mann Solutions, explains the use of predictive analytics in employee monitoring. “In essence, these tools use complex algorithms to pre-empt an employee’s actions based on social media activity, including language, frequency and tone,” she says, adding that this is being used to predict when employees are likely to begin job hunting so that organisations can plan accordingly.

More worrying are the devices and applications that go beyond merely monitoring employees’ use of company-provided tech or parsing through social media data to identify predictive patterns. Consider, for example, the implications of devices that monitor employees’ moods. Hugh Son recently wrote in Bloomberg Businessweek that “companies including JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America have had discussions with tech companies about systems that monitor worker emotions to boost performance and compliance”.

The idea was the brain child of MIT Sloan School professor Andrew Lo, whose experiment saw 57 stock and bond traders wearing wristwatch sensors to measure pulse and perspiration and monitor their reactions in a simulated trading environment. “Imagine if all your traders were required to wear wristwatches that monitor their physiology, and you had a dashboard that tells you in real time who is freaking out. The technology exists, as does the motivation—one bad trade can cost $100 million,” Lo said in the piece.

Canadian Business Magazine reported recently on Deloitte’s use of Humanyze’s smart badges, which resemble smartphones and are worn on a lanyard. Once the company had deployed a new office layout, they used the data from the smart badges – which tracked employee movements and how often they spoke to one another – to create a heat map of Deloitte office activity.

While this might sound like a corporate version of Orwell’s 1984 come to life, some companies are using these technologies to improve their workers’ experience of the workplace. Matrix, for example, is developing a worker welfare app that COO Wendy Kent says will have a direct and positive impact on the quality of workers’ lives, including their hours and pay. Users will be able to log responses to questions about quality of work life. Accumulated information will build a picture of each factory’s performance and staff happiness. Data will also reveal how to make improvements within their role, greatly boosting efficiency and quality.

“Moreover, creating an open, transparent environment where people can share their opinions will help factories improve and grow,” she says. “As Matrix works on a global scale, it has a full and well-rounded view of the industry landscape, and as such understands the need for its supply chain partners in China to operate efficiently.” Kent adds that, historically, there has been limited means to survey individual workers, but networks and sensors are now allowing insights into employee working conditions as well as output. “Aggregated, personalised data on workers will allow factory owners to make tweaks to processes for all staff, opening up opportunities to increase productivity.”

Brian Kropp, HR Practice Leader at CEB, explains that there are two major categories of employee monitoring that is being done. The first, and more common, he said, is to use behavioural data to get a better understanding of what is happening with the workforce in general, for example, using technology to come up with new ways to measure engagement rather than using a survey. The second, and less common, according to Kropp, is to use data that comes from employee monitoring to help individual employees on a one to one basis.

Kropp says that examples of the first situation include companies scraping social media to determine organisational turnover risk and employee engagement levels. “Another example is from a company that had moved to an open office space and is using technology to track where employees go [and] who they meet with. The goal here is to determine if the new floor plan is contributing to productivity or not,” he says.

Examples of the second are situations where companies are tracking attendance at meetings, frequency with which employees are checking email, and so on, to see if some employees are getting overwhelmed and need to have their job adjusted to make it more sustainable.

Employers are mostly within their rights to monitor employees in the job, however Hanson Bridgett’s Sandy Rappaport, a labour and employment partner, cautions that employers need to think carefully about what they want to achieve through monitoring, and set things up so that gains in efficiency or productivity aren’t weakened by a destruction of employee morale or trust.

“To avoid legal issues with monitoring, employers should make sure that they are putting employees on notice of what monitoring will be done, or better yet, getting consent from employees before doing so,” Rappaport says, adding that employers should also try to ensure that monitoring is being done across the board rather than with a targeted group. 

She explains that buy-in from employees can be achieved by using the monitoring only for making improvements rather than as a basis for discipline, and incorporating employee (human) feedback in connection with any potential changes made as a result of what is learned through technology. “Allowing those actually doing the job to be part of the process of making improvements can be a win-win for both employers and employees,” she says.

Kropp believes that employee perceptions of monitoring are changing. Almost 30% of employees are comfortable with the idea that their employer is using data about them to make decisions, and younger employees are about 15% more comfortable with the idea that their employer is monitoring them at work than older employees in the workforce. “Given this trend, employee perceptions about the sense of workforce monitoring being intrusive will decline with time,” he says.

Kropp explains that part of this change is the realisation that people are monitored in their private life, and have become comfortable with that. “For example, social media [and] loyalty programs use the behavioural data about a person to provide a better customer experience for them, and generally this works well.  As this continues, employees will become more comfortable with the idea,” he says.

Tools, like predictive analytics, are too young to have received much feedback from employees, but Padua says that since predictive analytics analyse publically available social media activity – a practice that has become commonplace across many businesses – it’s highly unlikely that these new tools will be subject to heavy criticism by staff.

“Because this data is already out there, available in the public arena, the tool is merely analysing what’s already available in the marketplace,” she says. “It’s also important to add that this is in essence an extension of the big data information that companies already have to hand. The tools themselves are simply a means to analysing and understanding what this data means.”

Employees may be motivated to change their behaviour on social media should they become aware of monitoring, especially if they fear they may be penalised for job searching or other activities.

Len Glick, Executive Professor of Management and Organizational Development at Northeastern University in Boston, MA, says that “a lot depends on the employee-employer relationship and organisational context. If we are talking about a company where there is mistrust between the two, with little employee involvement, then it would need a phone conversation.” Glick adds, in a more positive environment a discussion with employees can bring them on board. This process should have the impact of “doing it with them (employees) instead of doing it to them.”

As technological monitoring becomes more sophisticated and potentially more intrusive, companies will need to work more closely with employees to roll out these forms of monitoring, while new guidelines for the legal and ethical implications of such technologies will be needed.


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Bianca Wright

Bianca Wright is a UK-based freelance business and technology writer, who has written for publications in the UK, the US, Australia and South Africa. She holds an MPhil in science and technology journalism and a DPhil in Media Studies.

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