Few would argue against the beneficial role technology has played as an enabler of work, especially now, as we continue to face disruption to both work and working life as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. But is there a point when the implementation of technology crosses a line? Workforce surveillance and employee monitoring is a topic of contention, but is it something we all just need to get used to?
Join Nigel Cassidy and this months’ guests, Edward Houghton, Dr Stephanie Hare and Daniel Sharaiha, to discuss the benefits and risks of employee monitoring and where the boundaries between work and private life lie?
Nigel Cassidy: Is it okay to use tech to track workers? Getting staff surveillance wrong risks causing stress and anxiety and maybe losing people’s trust for good. I'm Nigel Cassidy and this is the CIPD podcast.
Would you believe not far short of half of workers think they’re being monitored, that’s one of the CIPD’s findings, but now COVID-19 has driven vastly more of us to work on screens from home well the signs are that surveillance is being ramped up. Employers have to somehow get a grip on what we’re all doing on productivity.
Now you might say managers should have the authority to get the job done yet what rights do they have to follow our every move when we’re not in the office but in our own homes? Well in this podcast we’re assessing the use, and maybe the abuse, of employee surveillance. What are the boundaries?
With me the CIPD’s former head of research Edward Houghton, he was behind the organisation’s recent report on all this and more in Technology and the Employee Experience. He's now head of research and service design at DG Cities. Hello.
Edward Houghton: Hi there Nigel.
NC: Dr. Stephanie Hare is a researcher and broadcaster with deep interest and indeed a book coming out on technology ethics. Among other senior roles she is a principal director at Accenture Research. Hello.
Stephanie Hare: Hello.
NC: And to help give our conversation an international dimension we’re delighted to welcome from the Bank al Etihad headquartered in Oman, the chief human resources officer, Daniel Sharaiha. Hello.
Daniel Sharaiha: Hello there.
NC: Now Edward no mistaking how technology has got us out of a hole as coronavirus rages worldwide, of course it’s enabled millions of us to work at home or out on the road solo during the pandemic and I mentioned this figure about almost 50% of workers being monitored, how common would you say that workplace surveillance is right now? What sort of methods are we talking about?
EH: Our survey showed us that about the majority of employees that we surveyed about 73% believe that these technologies could damage trust between workers and employers and about two in five, around 43%, expressed concerns that introduction of workplace monitoring would make it easier for their privacy to be violated. And so we see through the survey a real concern on the side of workers around these technologies in the workplace. And obviously for many of us our workplace is now our living room or our office at home and so real concern for workers. But to your question, how much is this happening for organisations? How many organisations are actually doing this? And this is one of the glaring gaps I think in data in that we don't really know the extent to which through the COVID crisis that monitoring and surveillance has been upped. But we do know that organisations are increasingly investing in technologies that allow or enable this to happen and we do know that organisations are increasingly looking to technologies around automation and AI to improve productivity, to better connect employees to one another and to support individuals to upskill. And so we know that these are things that are happening, that technology is supporting, but what we don't know yet is how much monitoring and surveillance is happening on the ground for employees but like I said employees perceive a real challenge for their own work and they do see it shaping their own practices and their relationships with their organisations that they work for.
NC: Okay so Stephanie Hare we already used to check into the office with a lanyard maybe, we log onto our computers, our transactions are monitored, I mean quite often they have to be because of the regulations around the job that we do, but with no manager watching us at home is it reasonable to assume that these and other practices might be adapted to be used in the home? I mean in a sense what is the problem here?
SH: Oh gosh there are so many ways that we can unpack that. So I think starting out we would have to ask first of all are you using your employer’s devices or your own device? So if you are using your personal mobile phone or your personal laptop or desktop that's really different than if your employer has given you a dedicated device on which you would work. So I think right there you could be expected quite reasonably to keep your private life private and your personal use of technology more streamlined on your own devices than on your employer-given devices. So if you are working at a work laptop you know not to be looking at pornography, for instance, which we know many people do. And you would also expect if you have children that your children should not be using a work device, your children should be using a personal device. And that's a really clear cut way of looking at it. I think it becomes trickier though that because we’re in a pandemic not everyone necessarily is set up for homeworking and not every employer will necessarily be making budget to equip all of their workers to have dedicated work devices. There's a real blurring of boundaries there.
Second, even when we went into the office simply badging in and out for instance, so that for security purposes you might need to have access to an area that you wouldn’t want members of the public to be able to go to, or it was a way for your employer to see what time you arrive and leave and how long you take your lunch break. You could argue that those are part of the employer/employee relationship and there are a lot of people who would still say that is excessive but you can make an argument for that. That falls down again at home, when you’re working from home your employer might still want to know that information but the problem is you might be making your child breakfast while fielding emails or on a work call or listening to a conference call. So are you working or on personal time or both? And it becomes really complicated because it’s not just your data it’s your family’s data at that point as well. So I think employers would want to be very careful about the desire to get more information actually could expose them to greater risk because if they fail to keep that information secure and something, God forbid, happens, they could find themselves on the wrong side of a law suit.
NC: Okay well maybe we’ll go a bit more into the legal situation and what companies can do in a minute because you've raised some fascinating and important issues there but before we go any further let’s bring in Daniel Sharaiha, just taking this on a simple level if I was in the office and I kept taking breaks my manager would see and it would be perfectly reasonable as a management issue for them to find out what I'm doing. Because I'm at home I'm still in firm’s time so to what extent is the home now an extension of the office, given what we’ve already heard from Stephanie Hare about the fact that if it’s my own equipment and my own life then there is some intrusion there?
DS: It depends on the culture of the organisation. For me I think there's a balance between wanting what is the best for your organisation and monitoring all transaction and the best interest of the employees. Employee experience is very crucial. I think some organisations we overstep on that privacy aspect and we over-control, we over-record, we over-monitor what is going on with the employees, especially after the pandemic where a lot of people are working from home and you hear their children screaming in the background while making calls or meetings and so on. And I believe a proper HR in this time in the world would show some tolerance and some respect for people’s privacies. Not everybody has a big home where they can have a private office and they shut down everything and they have this privacy for them. So many employees would have a smaller home were actually the office is in the kitchen and people are there all the time. So I think there is a balance between that and being an HR professional in our part of the world demands us to also be humane, it’s human and humane resources and I think a lot of people miss out on that.
NC: Let’s take a few examples that have been publicised recently, Edward Houghton, most famously Barclays Bank was widely criticised weren’t they earlier in the year for being caught piloting a scheme to protect individuals from overworking and raise general productivity, well that's what they called it. But employees told a newspaper they were frightened to go to the loo or to take a biscuit break. And we’ve seen PWC, the accountants, seen to offer facial recognition technologies to investment banks and asset managers. So all this is bubbling under isn't it?
EH: It is bubbling under and I think these high profile stories have highlighted the key question that is what is the fundamental reason that you want to invest in these technologies, and if you were to invest in these technologies how will you ensure that they are going to be done with the people who are using them or being serviced by them in an appropriate manner, in an appropriate way that protects their rights but also provides them the support to be able to do their jobs better? And I think you speak to the experts in HR at the likes of Barclays and they will say, ‘We did this for this particular reason and it was this reason around productivity and efficiency that was key to us,’ and in the pandemic it’s entirely reasonable for an organisation that's going to be suffering significant losses to try to maintain levels of productivity and performance throughout the crisis by implementing these technology types. But it needs to be done in a way in which employees are engaged throughout the process, that it’s transparent and that it’s done in a meaningful way where it actually enables employees to shape their own work practices better.
And I think that's the really positive part for this technology it can really support and enable employees to better manage their time, to understand how effective they are in different circumstances, to work with their line manager, to think about development opportunities, should a technology show them that actually they’re less productive when they're using a certain software type or programme. There are great opportunities here to really shine a light on better working practices but that has to be sold to employees and our data tells us from our survey and from our focus group work that employees are yet to be convinced about this technology and its impact. And that’s what these high profile stories have showed us.
NC: Well you've made the case for it there but Stephanie Hare there is this kind of sense of mission creep isn't there? I mean we’ve had Amazon and logistics companies experimenting with bracelets or harnesses which have safety functions, there are very good reasons for them they might, for example be off to tell if we are socially distancing when we’re at work or taking the right hygiene precautions, but they could also be used to monitor what we’re doing?
SH: Yeah I think it’s really interesting when we think about workplace surveillance to ask if this is for all workers or just some workers. Like is Amazon’s Jeff Bezos allowing himself to be surveilled and having that data shared with all of his employees and shareholders and possibly the media who would possibly also like to know what he's getting up to? We could share with everyone and I guess the sceptic in me looks at this and goes, it’s always top down, executives and managers are not the ones being surveilled it’s workers and there are many ways that you could look at boosting people’s productivity that don't involve surveilling them.
And then there's this question of consent. So in an economy where we are watching all sorts of redundancies and underemployment conditions happening because we’re in an economic crisis as well as a public health crisis there will be many people who will not feel empowered to object to these levels of surveillance because they frankly need a job, they have a family to feed and they’ve got rent or a mortgage to pay. Those people are going to be at a disadvantage compared to people who are better off or have more power in the workplace.
So already we’re not just talking about technology any more we’re talking about existing power structures, employer/employee relations etc. So I think we really need to push back on some of this and kind of look at this from the Hippocratic oath point of view of first do no harm. Are there ways that we could boost productivity without surveilling people? Absolutely. So why aren’t we doing them? I mean sort childcare right there and you could improve productivity but we never do that.
NC: Isn't the problem Daniel that it’s kind of easier to try and solve problems with productivity by trying to micromanage people and it is then that you get this stress and anxiety among workers? You already alluded to it earlier and that maybe comes a bit before the loss of trust. How do you as a manager deal with this when maybe you've got to introduce these systems on behalf of your employers?
DS: I believe that most HR policies they belong to 300 years ago where workers had no choice in life and their talent, work opportunities were not matching talent. I think in our work people are looking for somewhere to work with that actually respects them as employees and respects their value system and their privacy. I believe many organisations are still missing out a lot and I'm talking from a bank here right, but in our bank for example we show a lot of respect for our employees, we treat them like human beings not numbers and because of that we are considered an employer of choice in the country, in Jordan, but people know that they are valued here, they are respected as human beings and this will give edge to any organisation, bank or non-banks. I believe that HR should blow up their policies and look at workforce in a different manner where they are treating people like people not like machines or numbers or that aspect.
NC: So that really involves managing up, I mean never mind looking after your people you’re trying in that case aren’t you to change the hearts and minds of the managers who issue these policies you then have to implement?
DS: Actually no we create the policy, the policy making is done with HR and the business lines. So there is a lot of harmony in that. I believe it’s more than that Nigel, I think surveillance, too much of it without the proper process for it, without employees knowing or very clear that HR, for that is in some countries in our part of the world, in the Middle East, it’s illegal and I consider it unethical. It is not proper what is being done in most organisations. I know of some organisations they have a chip in the sales people’s cards so they monitor every single step and if they go off route they would call them, ‘Where are you?’ and they would say, ‘I went to have a coffee,’ or, ‘I'm in the bathroom,’ or whatever, and some people they actually log and time every second of employees if they take any break and they investigate with them on that. Well I think this is good for like 200 years ago, not in our current time, where job enrichment is becoming more and more and depending on the skillset and the attitude and the engagement of employees.
NC: I'm sure a lot of people would agree with you but Edward the reality is that this is unstoppable. We might think that that idea of a chip monitoring every single action and having the manager call you if you don't follow the right procedure is unfair, unreasonable but if we take something like the UK government’s coronavirus the test and trace measures, I mean we might see workplaces routinely monitoring the health of their staff and we’ve already heard talk of concern about the fact that information monitored and centralised could be used for something else. So it’s not always as obvious that this is even going to happen and I wondered to what extent people professionals need to be aware of this?
EH: They need to be fully aware of this. They need to be enlightened to the challenges I think that are going to be coming very quickly towards them. So the CIPD conducted research in 2018 which looked at the role of HR in decision making around new technology and automation and found that HR was the least engaged and consulted in the design and implementation of new workplace technologies. So back then, and I think it would be similar now, there's a real issue in that technologies are being implemented from a strategic and an operational perspective by other functions without real consideration of the importance of a people perspective in those discussions.
And so first off I think the profession really needs to step into that as an opportunity to bring the expertise that they can into those conversations to protect and enhance the voice of workers to be able to create these practices in a way that is productive and creates value for the organisation but also supports workers in a culture and in an organisational structure that works for them. And so I don't think it’s inevitable and I think what we’re seeing now with this technology that's being used through the pandemic is that it can be very supportive and constructive in this context but everything is contextual and I think it’s important we really consider what kind of working environment we want to have in the future and I also think that workers are very savvy to this and they will consider their options of where and how they work on the labour market.
Obviously the currently labour market doesn’t give much choice at the moment and that's a real issue in that, to Steph’s point, low paid workers with low skills who are unable to move on the current labour market are subjected to these technologies and they have little voice and that's a real challenge and we really need to make sure that actually in a positive, in a healthy labour market and in a labour market which is going through crisis, all employees of any skill level or pay grade has the opportunity to shape their workplace in a way that is meaningful to them.
And that's the role of the people profession. That's what HR professionals can do is they can consider how technology is being rolled out, who’s been engaged in its development and design and what kind of support they can give to employees should they have any concerns and listening to those concerns and acting on them is I think a big role for the profession to play in the future.
NC: Some of that's quite noble Stephanie Hare, that's all about best practice but you’re all about using technology and harnessing it to get better work without some of these downsides so have you any thoughts about how we make sure we don't enter some kind of nightmare vision here but we can raise productivity and get people who are based at home, are scattered around, feeling part of the organisation and not just monitored and scared?
SH: I think there is also the risk that if you surveil your employees overtly as opposed to covertly, and both of those things happen, if they know it and they don't like it and they don't buy in and they don't feel they can do anything about it what will end up happening is they will just spend lots of time finding ways to work around it and subvert the surveillance. So what’s hilarious it’s like the law of unintended consequences, you install this surveillance technology thinking it will boost productivity, instead your workers work less because they’re spending time finding ways to work around that surveillance because it’s just very natural, human beings if we go to behavioural psychology human beings don't like to be surveilled. We have a natural reaction against it and we fight it and anyone who has ever known a teenager will know this and indeed some of us have maintained that spirit throughout our lives.
So there's this question of instead I think if it were to be done in conjunction with workers the entire way through so that they helped to shape it and set the rules and again if everyone understood if you are using a work-issued phone, if you are using a work-issued device of any kind expect that to be surveilled. Here is our data retention, here’s what we do with it, it goes through an algorhythmic auditing process, if you have a complaint this is how you would complain this is the redress.
All that has to be spell out it’s the rules of the game that you would expect in civil society. And if they don't want it you’re going to have problems in the same way that you would not wanting a change in pensions or parental leave or something, you’re going to get aggro and that might be expressed through union action or walkouts or just simply employee churns, the minute the market returns you lose your best people because they just don't want to deal with this.
So again proceed with caution and proceed with buy-in and then actually judge, does it work or not? And there's nothing wrong with trying something and then saying, ‘Do you know what we actually tried it and it didn’t boost productivity so we dumped it.’ That's okay too.
EH: Well it’s a relationship based on trust that goes both ways right? So I think that's critical in how we think about employees experience monitoring and surveillance but also how employers roll it out and the use, why they do it, what will be the use or the purpose of it? And I think it’s really important we don't think about monitoring surveillance as blanket monitoring surveillance with no real purpose or need. For it to follow the guidelines around data protection it has to have a limited and stated purpose. Employees need to know that it’s happening, they need to know that their data is being recorded, how it’s gathered, for what purposes, for what reason and when and how it’s going to be used and how it’s destroyed, where it’s stored etc.
They also need to understand actually the quality of that data and so there's also a question there for many employees about what quality this information is and obviously individuals need to be working in that trusting relationship that is both ways and stating how their working practices are working for them and it’s a two-way relationship. But I think this harks back to the point that Steph made earlier in that this power dynamic means that unfortunately monitoring surveillance is weighted towards workers who have little voice or little opportunity to challenge these technologies when they are implemented.
And so I think it’s really important we don't lose sight of this idea or concept that the trusting relationship has two sides to it and it’s important that we all recognise that in how we think and reflect on how these technologies are being rolled out. I think many of us can see this is really quite, we’re at a very interesting and challenging time I think for the profession because we have to step into this and lean on our expertise but also showcase our voice and our knowledge of what makes a good workplace and I think this is the role that the profession can play and if the profession isn't strong enough to stand up for those kind of principles then this could become something that is rolled out quite significantly, subversively through technologies that we’re all now using in our daily lives. Like many of us probably have a health monitoring technology attached to us right now measuring our heartbeat, ten years ago if you’d said to me that I would have that technology I would have said, ‘No way I can't see a use for that, I don't want anybody measuring my heart rate.’ But now I've been convinced, because this data is apparently useful for me and it does benefit me in my health and wellbeing.
Now this is a slippery slope and we need to make sure that we’re maintaining our principles and we’re considering what that slope could look like in five or ten years’ time. The pandemic has shown us actually how bad we are at predicting in some circles the future of work and so we need to go back to the drawing board and reconsider what this world of work could look like with monitoring and surveillance at its heart. And ask the question is that actually what we want?
NC: You’ve mentioned specific technologies there, health ones, Stephanie Hare can you just talk a little bit more about the specific technologies we might see being deployed here? I know obviously facial recognition is a big concern of yours.
SH: It could be your face, it could be your voice, it could be your keyboard and typing pattern. So you might log on thinking that you’re going to game the system that's monitoring you but actually what it’s doing is seeing if you move your mouse every so often, so it doesn’t matter that you've logged on if you've walked away and are out in the garden sunbathing it’s going to know you're not working or what it’s been coded to consider work. Some of us are working in our brains and it doesn’t look like we’re doing very much but we’re actually thinking and we haven’t really figured out a way to monitor that, although I'm sure they'd love to attach electrodes to our brains if they could.
So there's those things but I think there's also this really interesting question about like you manage what you measure. So if you’re measuring people’s productivity based on time, so if I log in and I'm at my computer and I'm able to be measured being at that computer, moving my mouse and my camera’s picking up my rapid eye movements and I'm staring at a screen for eight hours am I actually being productive or do we want to move to a different way of measuring value which would be something like results-driven? So if it takes me three hours to write this report or eight hours to write this report does it matter or does it just matter that I got the report done by Tuesday which was what we agreed with the client?
And maybe it does and maybe it doesn’t but I just think we have to be so careful what we’re measuring and why. And of course again always remembering those unintended consequences. As an employer you would have to be so careful even doing things like measuring somebody’s heart rate or having something on the device that could because you could be picking up signs that somebody’s pregnant before they themselves know, or before they’ve told you. They may decide not to go through with that pregnancy and in the United States where your healthcare is linked with your employer status it’s really dangerous to give employers health information because they will use that to not pay your health insurance in ways that are just hair raising.
So we have to be so careful. We think we’re getting one thing, we think we’re using voice measuring technology as an authentication measure but what we’re actually doing is picking up a bio marker that this person is likely to get Parkinson’s before they or their doctor could know it. So like scary stuff. Proceed with caution would be my suggestion for all of us in this 21st century world!
DS: If I can quote from my favourite show The Simpsons where Homer Simpson once decided to have a chicken, just pick up on his work station and they have the nuclear meltdown because of that. I think if you over-monitor you’re encouraging employees to become like chicken and work in that mindset. Even though some jobs might require close monitoring. For example, some organisations, especially banking, would like to log all customers visiting a branch because in some way you protect the employee in that aspect and that is respected and understood. I want to go back to Edward when he said whatever you do there is a process for that, you need to take approval, you need to let them know why you are doing this and how does that benefit. I think it can be done as long as it’s clear what you’re doing.
NC: So let’s try and bring this together and I think some of you have already hinted about best practice but let’s go round asking, Edward first. A final thought from you on how you can try and ensure that new technology that's used to monitor or surveil people is the right technology and does not make people stress and upset and lose your trust?
EH: So I’d say two things, one is back to basics what is the question you’re trying to answer with the data that you’re collecting? So what’s the purpose of your data collection process and could you find that answer without collecting data through monitoring and surveillance? And I think that's an important place to start from when we’re thinking about these new technologies. Attached to that is this idea of going into these conversations mindful of your knowledge and expertise but also leaning on the expertise of others in the organisation to support you to do that. And back to my point about CIPD research that showed that HR has little space to talk about this at the moment and not really engaged in decision making. I think that's really important and we need to overcome and I think that will improve the quality of these decisions.
Second I think I would say that employee voice and engagement throughout the entire process is critical and that really is where HR can bring a lot of value, engaging employees to not just reflect on the technology that's being implemented but also to try and co-create solutions using that technology and actually getting into the questions that are trying to be answered. And I think if you give the space to employees to talk about these issues from their perspective you will have a really useful conversation that won't just talk about the technology you'll talk about relationship at work, you'll talk about trust, you’ll talk about productivity and performance, you'll talk about the quality of line management.
So I think all of this needs to be wrapped into a really clear and comprehensive engagement process with the workforce through comprehensive voice strategies and I think that's really critical through all of this. If you have little employee voice it’s high risk to the organisation, it’s high risk to employees and it’s a slippery slope that needs to be avoided.
NC: Okay and from outside the people profession, Stephanie Hare would you add anything here?
SH: I’d really like to build on that point, this idea of trust and relationship which is that if you can find out what motivates your workers, what they are scared about and what they are hopeful for and where they get their value from, if you can then mine that as an employer you might be able to achieve some of your goals without having to take on surveillance technologies. There's probably other ways to crack this egg. So I think the more, I like to put in the humane and human resources piece a lot from Daniel as well, remembering that we’re people at the end of the day, particularly in a crisis like the pandemic we need that human flexibility and no machine will ever understand that.
NC: And Daniel Sharaiha can you really get all this to happen in a bank when basically every transaction, every move anybody makes has to be logged down?
DS: Yes if it has a good culture. I think it’s all about a business case. I think the business case we make as chartered professionals is that if you want happy customers you need happy employees for that.
NC: Excellent well I must thank three more top guests on the podcast that was Daniel Sharaiha, Edward Houghton, and Dr. Stephanie Hare, thank you very much indeed to all of you. As always the CIPD has lots of online resources to help with bringing in new technology. Edward's already referred to his report and there's lots of advice, for example prioritising the voices of employees, we’ve heard about that, clearly explaining the purposes, the outcomes and boundaries of any monitoring. Some good checklists there. And providing informal spaces for team members to check on each other’s wellbeing, something we haven’t mentioned.
Before we go let me just mention the great and overwhelming response on social media to our last podcast on workplace racism. One experienced HR leader said it was insightful and refreshingly direct. Another liked how our guests rubbished the notion of unconscious bias and someone said they listened to the podcast three times.
Until next month from me Nigel Cassidy and all of us at the CIPD it’s goodbye.
CIPD research shows varied responses to generative AI use from organisations, as some explore opportunities to improve productivity
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