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Your boss is watching you. Here’s why monitoring employees can be a double-edged sword

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A recent New York Times story examined how US companies track and monitor their employees. More and more employers rely on invasive technology to monitor their employees. While there are certainly challenges in managing employees in today’s fast-paced online world, keeping a close eye on every minute may not be the best solution.

What does employee monitoring say about the relationship between employees and their company? Is micromanaging employees a legitimate or meaningful way to evaluate how well they are working? Ultimately, who benefits when companies use invasive technology to monitor their employees?

Employers must want their employees to be productive. They need to protect themselves and grow their profits. Employee monitoring can benefit employees and businesses alike, but it can backfire in unfortunate ways if not done thoughtfully. Before investing in technology that tracks what employees do during their working hours, companies need to understand the implications and potential drawbacks of workplace monitoring.

Related: You’ve Been Tracking Employee Productivity All the Wrong

Managing vs. micromanaging

The software technology used by many companies tracks just about everything employees do, from the number of keystrokes on their computers to how fast they scan messages. It can cause them to take too many bathroom breaks or be penalized for resting their fingers while using their brains. Employees indicate that they feel compelled to press the keys to record activity.

According to the article, such software is present at Amazon, UPS, United Healthcare and Kroger’s stores, where employees in both blue and white collars are measured and scored on a daily basis. It creates an overview of employee performance that companies rely on when making important decisions about compensation, promotions and tenure.

Good managers need to understand workplace dynamics and know that different people work differently. They should keep an eye on their employees by observing them during the workday, meeting with them to discuss problems and successes, collecting information from colleagues and customers who deal with them regularly, and watching others perform the same tasks . They should make personnel decisions based on these inputs, giving each an appropriate weight.

When companies rely on technology to micromanage their workplaces, employees are no longer controlled. They are statistics that do not reflect their true value to the company. Companies can fire, fire, or demote those who think outside the box, perform tasks differently, or otherwise fail to conform. Workers who think creatively, solve problems and break the mold can become disciplined bean counters who go through the motions to stay employed. Everyone eventually loses.

Employee mental health

We know that work-life balance is directly related to mental health. Happy employees are more productive and committed to their work. During the COVID pandemic, many workers discovered that they could have flexibility in their work arrangements and the purpose of their work. The “Great Layoff” was a message to employers that employees demanded more job satisfaction and respect at work.

Installing “Big Brother” technology that spy on employees sends the opposite message. It tells employees that they are not valued or trusted. How bizarre to communicate with a workforce with one foot out the door! Instead, companies should work to restore trust between themselves and their employees, which indicates that employees are expected and trusted to do their jobs.

If there are issues with output, efficiency, or productivity, management should address them through traditional channels: document errors identified, develop an improvement plan, and monitor progress toward defined goals. Pulling out a computer-generated spreadsheet that tracks keystrokes isn’t a way to build confidence, improve morale, or instill a sense of ownership and responsibility. If anything, it will lower employees’ self-esteem while reducing their commitment to the company.

Related: You work better when you’re being watched. Here’s How To Check Yourself

Employer Protection

That said, companies need to know what’s happening in their workplace. To make sure their money is well spent, they need to have a good understanding of what their employees are doing while they are on the job. They can get this in a variety of ways — observation, periodic goals and results, third-party surveys — that don’t seem over the top. Even if they implement tracking technology, they must combine its results with other assessment methods. Such an approach reminds employees that they are being watched and assures them that they are not subject to random, machine-generated assessments.

In addition to ensuring that employees do what they are paid to do, employers must ensure that employees do not violate policies, violate the law, or engage in inappropriate behavior in the workplace. If they don’t, they can hold themselves liable. It doesn’t take much effort to regularly search emails for keywords that are likely to indicate bias, misogyny, homophobia, or other objectionable schools of thought. Such communication has no place in the workplace and can signal serious problems for a company if not addressed in a timely manner.

Whether they suspect bad activity or not, employers need to give themselves the tools they need to monitor employee communications on shared systems. federal law says employers with policies stating that they can monitor their email systems have the right to monitor emails sent by employees on their work devices. Employers should therefore publish policies in their handbooks stating that employees’ e-mails and internet usage can be monitored and that employees should have no expectations of privacy in their e-mail communications or computer use. They should ask their employees to acknowledge receipt of this policy.

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it comes down to

Employees who are properly managed and respected will feel valued in the workplace. They will show a higher level of engagement, productivity and loyalty. Rather than relying solely on technology to assess and value employees, companies should monitor them with care and consideration. When this happens, everyone wins.

Related: Can Employee Monitoring Be Done Ethically?

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