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Surveillance vs. Employee Experience in the Work-From-Home Era

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Brooke Lynch

Remote Worker

With remote work continuing into the new year, companies are looking for ways to inspire productivity from afar. They will pursue options for consistently monitoring and motivating their at-home employees.

But what happens if employees feel these options are overbearing? Will the positive efforts to empower agents turn into a reason for disengagement and frustration?

The emergence of Microsoft’s Productivity Score tool brought this discussion to light. Presented as a way to uncover insights and promote productivity, the feature was criticized for being invasive. New features introduced in October spurred additional debate.

Productivity Score analyzed individual employee behavior within the Office 365 suite, providing companies with end-user-specific reports on 73 different behavioral metrics. Activity related to email frequency, time spent on chat services, and use of cameras during meetings would all be collected over a 28-day period and accessible to higher-ups. 

In the words of some vocal critics, the software was “essentially gamifying workplace surveillance.” Though it was explicitly stated that it's not a work monitoring tool and is an opt-in service, concerns were raised when it was discovered that only administrators could decide who actually opted-in. Twitter user Wolfie Christl, stirred the initial backlash calling the metrics esoteric and outlining its surveillance capabilities. 

In a December 1 statement, Microsoft acknowledged the criticism and concern. It also reaffirmed its commitment to privacy by announcing two changes:

  1. The Productivity Score reports will no longer include individual user names and associated data: Going forward, the communications, meetings, content collaboration, teamwork, and mobility measures in Productivity Score will only aggregate data at the organization level.”
  2. Verbiage in the interface will also make it clear that Productivity Score is about assessing the overall organization’s digital transformation - and adoption of key features. It is not about spying on individual users.

It may have commanded the greatest quantity of media ink and loudest volume of discourse, but Microsoft’s Productivity Score is hardly the only technology walking a fine line between measuring organizational adaptation to the new normal and tracking specific individual employee activity. Numerous other solutions that gained traction during the pandemic, like Time Doctor, which downloads videos of employees screens throughout the day, and TSheets, a service used to track employees whereabouts, are sparking similar privacy discussions

On the one hand, it is easy to see why monitoring - be it through active surveillance or passive performance tracking - is top-of-mind in today’s business landscape. Monitoring initiatives empower companies to make data-driven assessments and decisions at a time when “looking over the shoulder” is impossible. For companies unwilling to compromise on performance standards and unable to ignore compliance guidelines, surveillance seems like the only option.

And, in fairness, many companies will (and should) incorporate some degree of monitoring into their remote work management strategies. As they pursue these initiatives, however, they cannot ignore the employee experience ramifications.

With 42% of US employees working remotely for the indefinite future, companies need to think critically about this balance. Performance management is essential in all organizations, and compliance monitoring is especially crucial in companies that manage high-stakes interactions and/or sensitive customer data. The operation cannot be successful, however, if its pursuit of these goals compromises employee privacy and trust.

In a recent survey on the future of remote work, PWC states that 65% of companies name enhancing the employee experience as a top priority. If companies truly value the employee experience, they should consider other methods before implementing surveillance technologies that make employees feel scrutinized. 

Here are a few points to examine when establishing performance metrics and implementing tracking technology:


Consider the Emotional Impact 

When uncertainty is abundant and employees are faced with unique daily challenges, the last thing they need is their employer tracking their coffee breaks. The pandemic has presented emotional difficulties that need to be examined before implementing technologies that may further employees feelings of insecurity. Establishing a safe workspace is essential, even at home. If utilizing surveillance technology instills additional fear or anxiety you may want to scale it back.

It may seem fair to keep an eye on your employees in the office, but when the living room transforms into the workplace, privacy becomes an issue. Before the pandemic, there were clear boundaries between work and home life, but in the current environment these boundaries begin to fade. Employees don't always have the option to leave their home so surveillance measures - even the same ones you used in the physical office - can feel like an intrusion on their personal space.

Realizing that the emotional impact of surveillance goes beyond personal preference and infringes upon individuals home life is important when considering employee experience. 


Build Trust from the Ground Up

Employees at organizations with high levels of trust are less stressed, have more energy at work, and are more productive overall. Building trust through honest conversations can be extremely valuable in terms of productivity. 

Hard conversations are often the ones worth having, and taking the time to speak with your employees directly about their performance can have a profound impact on accountability on both sides. 

Trust can be built by allowing employees to take risks without feeling insecure or undervalued, creating clear boundaries, and promoting a healthy work/life balance. Utilizing communication methods that facilitate supportive conversations and rewarding your employees for being productive can inspire a much more engaged workforce. 


Focus on Output and Results

Metrics set the tone for agent performance, and the best ones track work quality rather than trivial behaviors in certain platforms. Fully remote companies like GitLab, note their success in measuring the result of the work rather than the exact number of hours put in. You should encourage your employees to emphasize the quality of their work to promote more efficienct productivity.

The quality of agent interactions is essential in fostering successful customer interactions. As an organization, promoting high-quality conversations that leave customers feeling satisfied should always take precedence over the quantity of emails an employee is sending. Putting emphasis on results allows employees to focus on the meaning behind their work. Micromanaging daily output puts more weight on meaningless metrics than your bottom line.