Monitoring Employees? Don’t Expect Them To Like It.

Image credit: iStockphoto/nadia_bormotova

Looking at it from the employers’ point of view: There is an argument that says they should monitor what their workers — and particularly remote workers — are up to.

If they are paying a wage, it seems reasonable they should have some view of daily activities. This can include login and logout times and websites and social media networks they visited in the time they are being paid for.

For that reason, it is no surprise that employee surveillance and monitoring software was in high demand during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, with so many people forced to work at home.

Distracted employees

Having the majority of people work from home was one of the significant workplace revolutions in recent years. As employers struggled to understand employee productivity, employees were struggling with setting up home offices and dealing with many distractions in the home environment.

According to data from Top10VPN from April 2020, the global demand for employee monitoring tools increased by 87% compared with the previous month.

These tools are becoming more sophisticated and now incorporate artificial intelligence systems to measure employee behavior and productivity.

Organizations are using AI-enabled systems to analyze worker behavior in the same way that AI is used to analyze shoppers, customers, and passengers. The tools deliver activity logs with alerts and, in more sophisticated incarnations, can detect specific actions and even misbehavior through analysis.

Push back

While the employee position is understandable, so is the news that many employees are pushing back against the monitoring trend, seeing it as an intrusion into their privacy.

In a world where trust should be the core of the relationship between employers and employees, the drive for surveillance systems could be seen as something of a throwback and an anomaly. From the worker’s point of view, it goes entirely against the idea that they will be judged on output alone, rather than being checked up on and micromanaged like schoolchildren.

There are even some questions as to whether some surveillance is actually legal. European privacy regulators, for example, are currently scrutinizing how employers collect workers’ personal data and have been fining businesses with penalties in the millions of dollars.

German electronics retailer notebooksbilliger.de, for example, was fined USD 12 million by the data protection regulator in the German state of Lower Saxony for using video surveillance cameras to monitor employees.

According to a recent research paper from Gartner, more than one in ten employees will seek to subvert and trick the AI monitoring systems installed by their employers.

“Just as we’ve seen with every technology aimed at restricting its users, workers will quickly discover the gaps in AI-based surveillance strategies,” says Whit Andrews, a distinguished research vice-present at Gartner.

“They may do so for a variety of reasons, such as in the interest of lower workloads, better way, or simply, spite. Some may even see tricking AI-based monitoring tools as more of a game to be won than disrespecting a metric that management has a right to know.”

Ethics needed

Even before COVID-19, Gartner’s research was showing that workers disliked these new surveillance and monitoring tools.

The research house says that as their use becomes more prevalent, so will employee determination to evade and subvert them.

Workers will find gaps where the metrics do not capture activity, or they will generate false or confusing data.

This is already happening, says Gartner, in some “digital first” organizations. For example, some rideshare drivers work for two services simultaneously to maximize their income.

“IT leaders who are considering deploying AI-enabled productivity monitoring tools should take a close look at the data sources, user experience design, and the initial use case intended for these tools before investing,” says Gartner’s Whit Andrews.

“Determine whether the purpose and scope of data collection support employees doing their best work. For those that do decide to invest, ensure that the technology is being implemented ethically by testing it against a key set of human-centric design principles.”

Lachlan Colquhoun is the Australia and New Zealand correspondent for CDOTrends and HR&DigitalTrends and the editor of NextGen Connectivity. His fascination is with how businesses are reinventing themselves through digital technology and collaborate with others to become completely new organizations. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/nadia_bormotova