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The boss is spying on you…

As you are reading this, I’m on my way to the UK for my first in-person “Future of Work” keynote after 18 months. I’m super excited that live events are possible again!

However, the amount of forms you have to submit to even be allowed to travel is astounding. Fingers crossed that I will get there and back without testing positive…

And while I was filling out these forms, I couldn’t help but wonder what happens with all this information? Where is it stored? How long is it kept? It’s all subject to the GDPR, so if I really wanted to find out, I could. It isn’t worth the trouble (yet), but why do test providers need a copy of my passport?

Workplace surveillance

The more personal information you share, the easier it becomes to fall victim to identity fraud, or some other scam. Data breaches are a daily occurrence now. Just last week, live streaming service Twitch was hit by a hack that exposed 125 GB of data, including earning statements for its users.

But it’s not just external sources that are keen to track your data and your movements. Your company is interested too: keystroke tracking, screenshots, and facial recognition are now tools that might be lurking under the surface of your laptop and watch you work.

In the Netherlands we have a saying that goes: “trust comes on foot and goes on horse back”. It signals that trust is earned – slowly – but can be damaged – quickly.

And once trust is gone, it will never be like it was.

There has always been some form of surveillance in the workplace. Before the pandemic, managers could see their teams working in the office (even though you never knew exactly what they were doing). It was a visual, in-person form of control. When that disappeared, the only thing left was trust.

Trust has been key in the employer-employee relationship during the pandemic. Companies had to trust that their employees did the right thing under difficult circumstances. Employees had to trust their leaders to get them through.

And even though the majority of employees were more productive while working from home, many organizations don’t really trust their people. They introduced surveillance tools to ensure that people were actually working while at home. Sometimes this was even done without employees’ knowledge – and consent.

Surveillance tools are booming

Global demand for worker surveillance tools saw a 63% increase since March 2021 compared to pre-pandemic average. And that’s a 24% increase compared to nine months prior.

You find many stories online of workers who suddenly realized they were being watched – all left their employment shortly after. People don’t like to be spied on, and especially not without them knowing.

What does the research tell us? Employees who had their performance electronically monitored perceived their working conditions as more stressful, and reported higher levels of boredom, psychological tension, anxiety, depression, anger, health complaints and fatigue.

Employees consider monitoring an invasion of privacy. Privacy is becoming more important every day, and the idea that your boss can listen in on a private conversation while you work from home, or watch your surroundings, doesn’t sit well with people.

And apart from watching people work, these solutions can also capture personal information like bank accounts and health info, in case workers happen to look at those on their work device (just don’t!).

Is there a better way?

So should you invest in surveillance tools? I think you have to ask yourself first if there is a key reason why employees should be monitored.

For example, did productivity decrease as people started to work from home? If it did, but it came back up afterwards, it was the sudden change. Find out what caused it. Have a conversation with employees about their work habits and give them time to improve.

The second question to ask is: is there a better way? Monitoring employees is old school thinking. Future of Work thinking is establishing goals, and outcomes with deadlines while trusting your employees to deliver, and coaching them to be successful.

And if you really feel there’s a reason for employee surveillance, be transparent about it. People will consider it a massive invasion of privacy, especially because they are being watched in their own homes. If they find out afterwards – and they always do – the company reputation suffers.

And don’t forget that people are enormously creative in outsmarting machines (yes, you read that right). Just a simple search surfaced an abundance of articles on how to bypass surveillance tools. From attaching a toy to the mouse, to installing extra screens and hacking source code.

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