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Employee tracking tech: Boosting productivity or hurting morale?

Learn how technology can help your business track employees, enhance their productivity, security, and efficiency.

David Howell

Unleash Your Curiosity As remote mass working has become the norm, employers are increasingly turning to technology to track their workers. Does this harm morale? Or can this technology enhance and empower a workforce?

  • 12% of businesses were already remotely monitoring their staff.
  • 90% of remote managers believe that remote tools will become standard even for non-remote staff.
  • Employees are increasingly comfortable with some form of tracking, as these technologies are often seen as an essential component of their employment.

Employers have always kept an eye on their employees. From time clocks to swipe cards, the need to know where and when an employee is at work has exploded thanks to the pandemic. Suddenly, working from home (wfh) became the norm – and with this scenario likely to become permanent for many enterprises – technology is being used to track and monitor these remote workers. The question being asked right now is if this monitoring level is beneficial or whether it’s eroding trust and productivity.

The current State of Small Business Britain report from the Enterprise Research Centre, which looks closely at the characteristics of businesses that have adopted more digital technologies, found that organizations using digital technologies were more likely to use some kind of efficiency-oriented management practices such as employee and business performance tracking.

If done properly, some tracking technologies can help boost morale and productivity — but it’s important to identify when they are becoming intrusive and if so, whether employee trust is suffering as a result.

[Read more: HR and Leadership in 2021: The Impact of Technology and COVID-19]

Employee tracking applications

Employee tracking applications include Time Doctor, a time tracking and productivity tool; ActivTrak, a cloud-based user activity monitoring software provider; VeriClock, an online clocking system; and Teramind, which specializes in employee monitoring, data loss prevention, insider threat detection, and workplace productivity.

Employee tracking can take many forms. Some products enable employers to keep tabs on productivity by allowing workers to complete timesheets. Other tools take periodic screenshots of a worker’s monitor.

Keyloggers have also been available for decades. Video surveillance, geolocation tracking via wearable devices, and the expansion of tracking applications that watch the email and social media usage of workers also proliferate.

Whether this level of monitoring is an intrusion or a reaction to employers perceiving a loss of control thanks to the move to mass remote working is debatable.

Managers used to have clear, visible control of their teams. Today, they are suddenly being asked to manage at a distance.

Indeed, the Remote Managers 2020 report from Remote-How – a platform that helps companies create efficient remote working environments — concluded:

“Trust issues and differing perceptions on how work should be carried out are the biggest obstacles preventing companies from implementing remote work, according to remote managers. Technology is no longer a hurdle, and the vast majority (90%) of remote managers believe that ‘remote tools’ will become standard even for non-remote staff.”

Speaking to UNLEASH, Hayfa Modzaini, senior research adviser at the Chartered Insitute of Personnel and Development, commented: “It’s really important that HR is providing support to managers on how to best manage teams remotely as it can often require a switch in mindset. They need to be evaluating performance based on outputs and contribution, not on time people spend at their desk.”

Stealth monitoring will clearly not be tolerated by employees whether they are working on-site or remotely. Research conducted last year found that nearly a third (32%) of workers had not heard of keyloggers. Additionally, the data showed that 80% of those surveyed were uncomfortable with any video surveillance, and three-quarters of respondents opposed wearable tracking technologies.

“Having your every keystroke or app usage monitored by your boss while you are working in your own home may sound like a dystopia, but there are precious few controls in place to prevent it becoming a daily reality for millions of workers across Britain,” Mike Clancy, Prospect’s general secretary, told UNLEASH.

Jon Maddison, managing director of EMEA at Achievers, added: “While monitoring software can aid performance across the workforce and assist managers in reviewing certain processes and targets, conversely, it could also damage morale and plant seeds of discontentment and anxiety among the workforce.

“Employees who are constantly anxious about being watched by ‘Big Brother,’ and concerned by the lack of transparency from leaders about the benefits surveillance offers, will be less inclined to participate.”

Monitored by AI

Artificial intelligence is arguably one of the most talked-about technologies in the world of HR. It’s already helping employers build trust among employees, but it can also play a part in eroding it.

Many of today’s tracking applications run on AI and leverage the tech to make sophisticated decisions based on the data obtained from the employees being tracked.

Real-life examples of how AI is being used for employee tracking include Afiniti, a platform that uses artificial intelligence to identify and track behavior; BetterWorks, which provides an AI-driven assessment of performance intended to replace the traditional human-led performance management review process; and Teramind, which can continuously run on the background of a worker’s PC to track and record all data traffic, including instant messages and social media.

While these powerful tools can help HR departments track people and teams, it’s important to be aware of the associated short and long-term risks.

Rick Kershaw, chief people officer at Peakon, said: “Implementing unnecessary and invasive surveillance technologies fosters a culture of distrust. It takes away employee’s autonomy to work how and when is best for them and erodes morale.

“This is a dangerous move, as autonomy is a significant driver of employee engagement which, in turn, is closely linked to productivity and overall business success. Employees who are trusted to complete their work as they choose are far more likely – and willing – to do it.In fact, our data shows that highly engaged teams have better customer satisfaction, better retention, and higher profitability,” he added.

Bossware or employee empowerment?

If employee tracking technologies are to be used in the right way, HR leaders must ensure that strategies are people-centric. If the tech is deployed without a thorough consultation with employees and a clearly defined data collection policy, organizations run the risk of alienating their workforce.

As employee tracking technology and analysis applications continue to expand and use sophisticated systems such as AI, the danger is that productivity and efficiency become paramount at the expense of trust. Employees are not generally averse to some form of oversight – this is expected, especially if they are working remotely – but it’s how these systems are implemented and how they are used to influence behavior that is a concern.

The future of employee management will inevitably require some kind of employee tracking technology. HR leaders tasked with identifying and then implementing employee tracking systems must pay close attention to the impact these applications can have on wellbeing. There is a fine line between management oversight and surveillance — finding the balance is now a critical HR skill that needs to be rapidly perfected.

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