The risks of monitoring employees

'Organisations need to remember that employees are monitoring them as much, if not more than, they are monitoring their employees'

The risks of monitoring employees

The rise of flexible and remote work has led to an uptick in companies looking to monitor their employees, according to Gartner. But monitoring employees can have negative impacts.

“Employers always, to a degree, monitor their employees,” Aaron McEwan, vice president, research and advisory at Gartner said. “In the old school way, [people] had them come into offices where their managers could see them and micromanage them and make sure that they're doing their work.

“So of course, what happened during the pandemic is you had this wide-scale shift to remote work and people working from home. What we saw during the pandemic was the purchasing of monitoring software rose by around 80%. A lot of organisations [said], ‘Well, we can't see our people so we’re going to invest in this technology that allows us to see what they're doing whilst they're working in this more remote model’.”

The negative impact of employee monitoring

But there are several negative impacts of monitoring employees, according to McEwan.

“This has been researched quite a lot,” he said. “Essentially, monitored employees are more likely to do, ironically, less work. In extreme cases, they're more likely to steal from their employers, they're more likely to damage equipment – industrial sabotage in the worst scenarios.”

Monitored employees also tend to focus on tasks that are less likely to drive organisational productivity or performance, McEwan added. For example, how long you're sitting at your desk or whether you are sitting at a computer.

“Generally speaking, monitoring employees doesn't actually deliver much to organisations,” he said. “It definitely erodes trust, it tends to drive the type of tasks and work that isn't delivering value. And, in the worst cases, it actually makes employees behave in non-helpful ways.”

This erosion of trust can potentially affect businesses in the long run.

“We know that trust is an integral ingredient of effective hybrid work,” McEwan said. “The data that came through during the pandemic was very clear that those employees who felt trusted by their organisation and trusted their organisation were more engaged, they better performed.

“So a lack of trust tends to lower engagement, it lowers that discretionary effort that employees are willing to give their organisation that really does drive the performance of the organisation.”

Social media and employee monitoring

One of the most important things employers need to be aware of is that their employees are keeping an eye on them too, McEwan said.

“Organisations need to remember that employees are monitoring them as much, if not more than, they are monitoring their employees.”

This comes amid the use of social media and an “uncanny fascination with work life,” he said. For example, he cited the antiwork subreddit where employees share their dissatisfaction with working conditions and the negative experiences they have at work. There is also the #WorkTok hashtag on TikTok where employees share their work experiences.  

In addition, about 56% of employees have consumed what Gartner calls ‘employee-generated information’ about their work and their employer in the past year, McEwan said.

“Not only are employees very openly sharing their experiences of work, but the public is voraciously… consuming as entertainment,” he said.  

And if the negative actions of employers are shared on social media and go viral, it can have a huge impact on the business. The share price can go down, there can be reputational and brand damage, and potential boycotts of products or services, McEwan said.

Giving employees a return for their data

Two key areas employers and HR teams can focus on is being transparent about how the business operates and using data their collect internally to help employees in their job. According to Gartner research, 67% of employees are willing to share their data with their employers under certain conditions, McEwan said.

“One of those conditions is that ‘You use it to improve the experience that I have at work,’” he explained. “It could be if I were to share my sleep data with my employer and that shows that I'm not getting enough sleep because I'm constantly on Zoom calls at 10pm at night, for example. If sharing that data leads to the organisation stepping in and going, ‘Actually, we need to stop this. We want our employees to have sleep, we want them to be happy and rested and not experiencing fatigue’. Well [that will] actually encourage employees to provide more data.”

It’s about employees getting a return for the data that they provide, McEwan said.

“Rather than spying on your employees, a better approach is to say, ‘Alright, we're going to first of all create conditions where we ensure that our employees know that their data is collected ethically, it's protected. And it's used to actually improve the conditions at work and improve the way that we perform as employees.’”

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