Use of Surveillance Software During COVID-19 Is a Big Mistake

Posted by David Grossman on Wed, May 20, 2020

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One of the newest employer trends to come out of the COVID-19 pandemic is the increased use of surveillance software to track employees’ daily activity while they work at home. The programs often include webcams that take regular images of employees during work hours. The software may also nudge employees who step away from their laptops, warning them to get back to work within a minute or be marked as off-task.

This trend reminds me of a game we used to play as kids – “king of the hill.” I can still remember the kid who was insistent on being the king of the hill in our sixth-grade class. That boy relished his sense of control, seeking power over the rest of us. I probably remember him so well because, as a lanky and uncoordinated boy myself, I had a permanent spot at the bottom of the hill. I wasted some time trying to work myself up until I realized I needed to be far away from that hill and pave my own path.

The surveillance software – dubbed “tattleware” by some critics – is controversial among many workers and privacy advocates, while supporters argue that it’s an essential productivity tool that will only become more popular as the remote workforce grows, both during COVID-19 and beyond.

I see this as the worst kind of big brother activity, and a big mistake for leaders.

While some might argue this is about productivity, I see it instead as leaders falling into the trap of needing to be in total control, rather than empowering and trusting their people. For any employer/employee relationship to work, there has to be a foundation of trust.

The Link Between Trust, Productivity and Engagement During COVID-19

The best leaders help their employees grow and develop so employees feel motivated to make their own personal contribution without being in a constant state of fear. After all, employees only trust their leaders when they know those leaders have their best interests at heart. Monitoring an employee’s every move hardly feels like it is in anyone’s best interest.

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I’ve seen this reflected in the news coverage of the surveillance systems. A woman working at a small Minnesota marketing company told National Public Radio recently that she felt an erosion of trust shortly after her company started using software called Time Doctor, which downloads videos of employee screens and can take a picture of an employee every several minutes through a webcam.

“I just feel like crap. I feel like I'm not trusted,” the woman told NPR, adding that she felt ashamed after taking a short break to speak with a colleague by phone. "My co-workers were really, really upset. But everyone was too afraid to say anything."

How Constant Surveillance of Employees During COVID-19 Can Backfire

I also see another major downside to these surveillance programs, which in essence works against the productivity levels they are designed to increase.

First, consider the type of metrics the software can track, such as the number of emails employees send, their time using applications like Word or Excel, or minutes spent monitoring social sites.

If employees know their time online or in a certain application like Word or Excel translates to “productive” time, they may take four hours to do a task that could be done in two.

A Better Way to Build Relationships

Of course, employee accountability is critical, and I’m certainly not suggesting that employees today don’t need to be held to high standards, even as they juggle a range of new stresses while working from home. But accountability can be measured in so many better ways: Are employees getting their projects done on time, or ahead of time? Are they coming up with innovative solutions, working well with coworkers, contributing important ideas at team meetings? Even better, are employees regularly exceeding the expectations of their coworkers and managers? Those are the results that truly matter, not whether they send 70 emails per day.

Rather than spending time surveilling employees and tracking minute-by-minute webcam photos and other metrics, I encourage leaders to take more time for honest conversations with their team members about the work, what’s going well and what could be improved. Great leaders might consider wrapping up those conversations by simply asking: How can I help? That’s when I think trust, engagement – and ultimately productivity – will begin to take its most significant leap.

Do you have an experience with an employee surveillance system? What impact did it have on trust for your organization? Aside from that experience, what do you think is the single best way to build a more engaged and productive workplace?

David Grossman


Click below to download the summary report—Working During COVID-19: U.S. Employees Embracing Remote Work—and get data to help you understand how U.S. employees are thinking about work in a post-pandemic world.

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Tags: Feedback/Trust, COVID-19 Communications

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    Leadership and communications expert, David Grossman shares high-level tips on leadership effectiveness, internal communications, employee engagement, and a variety of other topics on the minds of leaders and communicators.

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