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78% of Employers Are Using Remote Work Tools to Spy on You. Here's a More Effective (and Ethical) Approach to Tracking Employee Productivity.

Research and common sense show that the practice does far more harm than good.

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78% of employers use software to spy on employees. But the research — and common sense — shows that this tempting practice does far more harm than good. And 83% of employers acknowledge that it's ethically questionable. When you spy on your people, you trade trust, culture and morale for sketchy data and productivity theater.

Work-from-home and hybrid models are here to stay. Companies everywhere are investing millions in digital employee experience (DEX), which reduces IT friction and makes employees happier and more productive. Separately, the same remote and hybrid shift has encouraged companies to deploy so-called productivity surveillance technologies. These have the opposite effect and even punish those who allegedly waste company time.

DEX and productivity surveillance are very different. DEX helps employees and their companies, while surveillance harms both. What's more, data from productivity surveillance is, ironically, a terrible measure of productivity. Many companies have good justifications for specific, security and compliance monitoring practices. But we shouldn't let productivity surveillance hide in the shadow of necessary measures that prevent disasters like data breaches.

What's productivity surveillance, and what does it measure?

Leaders are worried about productivity. 85% blame hybrid work for obscuring whether employees are being productive, even though 87% of employees report they're more productive working from home.

Productivity surveillance includes things like taking screenshots throughout the day, logging keystrokes and clicks, analyzing message frequency and length and tracking website usage. All in order to measure, safeguard and (managers hope) increase worker productivity.

Companies implement productivity surveillance to police how employees are spending their time. But, the proxy measures they use are extremely problematic. Screenshots, keyloggers, mouse trackers and message frequency logs don't capture the important work that takes place away from company devices. Social workers, for example, have been penalized for visiting clients. Companies have docked pay for routine bathroom breaks. And none of these intrusions measure true productivity, like outcomes, work quality or goal attainment.

This technology is doing real harm to people who don't deserve it. And for what?

Related: Can Employee Monitoring Be Done Ethically?

The not-so-hidden harm and unbearable cost of surveillance

Productivity surveillance damages the relationship between workers and companies and makes employees more likely to lie, cheat, steal, pretend to work and quit.

43% of remote workers feel employee surveillance violates their trust; 59% feel anxiety; 26% feel resentment, and 28% feel underappreciated when subjected to such technologies. Tracked employees are nearly two times more likely to fake work and they spend over an hour extra online every day on average just to be seen by colleagues and managers.

The authors of two 2021 studies discovered many paradoxical effects of employee surveillance. Monitored workers are "substantially more likely" to engage in myriad negative behaviors, including damaging and stealing workplace property, taking unapproved breaks, disregarding instructions and cheating, working at a purposefully slow pace and blaming others for their actions.

During the pandemic, people took stock of their priorities. Millions have quit jobs because of poor working conditions and bad work-life balance and productivity surveillance decays both. Nearly 60% of tech workers said they would reject a job offer if they were surveilled by audio or video to enforce productivity. Roughly half would leave a job if their employers used audio and/or video surveillance, facial recognition, keystroke tracking or screenshots.

Related: Your Boss is Watching You. Here's Why Monitoring Workers Can Be ...

DEX vs. productivity surveillance

DEX, on the other hand, is a category of technology and strategies to empower — not punish — workers. DEX tools find and fix IT issues before they cause delays and frustration, and track employee sentiment about IT experiences to continuously improve them behind the scenes.

DEX is distinct from productivity surveillance because it scrutinizes things, not people: device performance, network speed, application crashes and the like. Companies use this data to enhance the technology experience for workers, not to evaluate productivity or punish them. This is precisely what employees want: 90% say their company's digital experience has room for improvement, 82% say the delayed resolution of IT issues slows employees down and 68% say DEX has a high or critical level of influence on revenue.

Related: How to Effectively Measure and Track Employee Productivity

The contrast couldn't be clearer. DEX makes workers more productive, makes the workday more enjoyable and makes companies more money. Policing productivity with surveillance makes your employees feel demoralized, untrusted and eager to find a better job. For leaders, it's time to take a hard look at your so-called productivity surveillance technologies, practices and data. It's also a moment for introspection. Let's end this misguided trend before it goes any further.

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