Privacy vs. Productivity: How employee monitoring software backfires (and what to use instead)

It’s increasingly common for companies to use employee monitoring software to track their team when they’re on the clock. And on some level, it makes sense. When your employees know you’re watching them, it could mean they waste less time and are more productive. But is that actually the case?

Unfortunately, not. Numerous studies indicate that trust is a substantial factor in employee productivity. But how can your team feel trusted when you’ve got eyes on them 24/7?

There’s a delicate balance between protecting your bottom line and your team’s privacy. So how can you support your team to do their best work while still ensuring they’re staying productive during working hours?

RescueTime helps you and your team stay focused by giving you in-depth reports on how you spend your time, blocking distracting sites, and more. Try it for free

The Psychology of Surveillance: What happens when you start watching your team’s every move?

We all feel at least a bit awkward when we know we’re being watched. And for good reason. In fact, many of our modern employee monitoring techniques have their roots in prison designs.

In the 18th century, English philosopher Jeremy Bentham created a new design for prisons and factories. The panopticon consisted of cells surrounding a circular tower from which the manager/guard could observe. (Pan for “all” and opticon for “to be observed”).

The inmates, however, could not see the tower due to their positions on its perimeter. This layout created a sense of constant surveillance meant to keep them productive and well-behaved.

Panopticon example

Today, you can see this same approach in everything from CCTV cameras to the data you collect on your teammates. We’re all being watched by someone. As George Orwell wrote about the dystopian world of 1984:

“There was, of course, no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. You had to live in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized.”

It’s easy to understand how a constant level of surveillance creates a lack of trust. But what are the measurable impacts of that mistrust in the workplace? 

As Stephen M. R. Covey, author of The Speed of Trust writes,

“Trust is not a soft, social virtue — it’s truly a hard, economic driver for every organization.”

In fact, 2/3 of the criteria for Fortune Magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For focus on issues of trust. According to their research, “trust between managers and employees is the primary defining characteristic of the very best workplaces.”

On the other hand, a lack of trust makes workplaces toxic and employees less likely to engage for a number of reasons.

For one, there’s defensive silence—when employees feel scared that speaking up will lead to being reprimanded or ridiculed and so they’re less likely to contribute ideas.

Next, there’s what’s called resigned silence—when your team feels there’s no point in speaking up as their ideas aren’t heard or acknowledged. In both cases, your workplace culture and productivity suffer as teammates get frustrated, burnt out, and eventually move on.

Trust and productivity go hand in handemployee monitoring trust

It’s easy to say that trust is an important factor in business success. But are their metrics we can measure to prove it? As it turns out, there are.

A 2015 study found that workers who feel trusted not only produce higher-quality work but also create more financial value for their companies. Trust helps employees feel less stressed and focus more intensely on their tasks without the constant fear of being fired, reprimanded, or ridiculed by peers.

But trusting your team isn’t always easy.

Some managers fear that if their employees aren’t on a strict schedule, they’ll waste time or do poor work. Again, the opposite is more likely the case.

Let’s take working from home as an example.

Many managers wrongly believe that productivity drops when their team works remotely. However, a two-year Stanford study of Chinese workers in a call center found that people who work from home were more productive, spent more time on the clock, and handled more calls than their peers who worked on site. 

In many cases, employees see trust as a privilege.

A recent study found that 96% of U.S. professionals say they want more flexibility. Yet only 47% have it. Employees who are trusted to create their own schedules consistently perform well because they don’t want to lose that privilege.

How employee monitoring software erodes trust

Despite all this, employee monitoring software is increasingly common. Studies say that 66% of employers monitor what their employees are doing during the workday.

Many of these tools track productivity by taking regular screenshots while workers are on the clock. Not only does this make your team feel like you’re invading their privacy but could also cause misleading assumptions. For example, you might assume an employee is wasting time by looking at Instagram when they’re really doing research on social media marketing.

This is the tricky thing about any sort of individual surveillance of employees. Even if your intentions are good, installing software like this can have the opposite effect.

Here’s one example:

After getting complaints that luggage was going missing, TSA managers installed cameras to prove their agents weren’t at fault. However, the decision backfired. Instead of making them feel more secure, the added surveillance caused agents to feel spied on (and productivity dropped significantly).

Does this mean all employee monitoring tools are flawed?

Not quite.

Tools like RescueTime for Orgs gives managers insight into overall productivity trends, time spent on key tools, and focus metrics so you can see when your team is overworked, identify time sucks, and help them spend more time on meaningful work without invading their privacy.

RescueTime for Orgs Dashboard

For example, it’s easy to spend the majority of your time on communication tools and other apps that don’t contribute to meaningful work (like writing, designing, coding, etc…).

RescueTime’s Key Tools report gives you insight into the apps your team uses the most so you can see if they need help delegating tasks or adjusting their workload.

Checking Key Tools

Think of it as a heart rate monitor for your team’s productivity, helping you guide them to their optimal performance.

Give you and your team the gift of focus with RescueTime. Try it for free

Other tips for helping employees maximize  productivity (without invading their privacy)

Employee monitoring trust ideas

Building employee trust takes more than just an app, however. Luckily, there are easy things you can do as a manager to foster trust. Here are a few ideas:

  • Encourage open dialog about workload and time management. No one wants to feel like they can’t handle their workload. By letting employees know it’s ok to openly discuss their workload and expectations you show that you trust them to do their best work.
  • Show that you listen to and take all feedback seriously—both positive and negative. When your team feels they can’t speak up, they’re less likely to trust you and your organization. Instead, you can try to create a culture where feedback is heard and taken seriously.
  • Use one-on-ones as an opportunity to plan, not judge. When using tools like RescueTime for Orgs to track productivity, make sure meetings are focused on supporting your team over judging them for a perceived lack of productivity.
  • Give more opportunities for flexible working schedules. Workers want flexibility. So why not offer it as a perk, even on a limited basis, to show you trust them and want them to do their best work?

It’s time to take trust seriously

A lack of trust could have further-reaching effects than most people realize. As such, it’s worthwhile to investigate the available options that help employers keep tabs on worker productivity without harming trust levels.

There’s no need to watch everything your employees do or give them the impression that your company is Big Brother. If you choose to monitor worker output without sacrificing trust and privacy, expect to see positive payoffs in ways you expect, as well as some you might not.

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Kayla Matthews

Kayla Matthews is a productivity and tech writer published on Lifewire, MakeUseOf, and others. To see more of her work, visit her blog or follow her on Twitter @KaylaEMatthews

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