Why Virtual Employee Surveillance Hurts Productivity

The need for morality and compassion in a COVID-19 world

Image of a old-fashion spy taking pictures of files at a desk — a metaphor for electronic employee surveillance software
Image of a old-fashion spy taking pictures of files at a desk — a metaphor for electronic employee surveillance software

On Twitter and LinkedIn, work from home is the buzz in this COVID-19 environment, especially with white-collar teams. To keep businesses operating, companies have transformed their onsite employees to virtual ones. For example, one financial institute client explained that his tech department rapidly expanded its systems to handle the new demands of a completely virtual workforce.

For some, virtual work may become their new normal. Companies, like Twitter and Square, allow employees to work from home indefinitely while Google and Facebook employees can work from home until the end of 2020.

The rise in virtual surveillance, spyware, tattleware, and tracking

With more people working from home, more companies are using surveillance software to verify that employees are working rather than watching TV or reading Facebook. As Bobby Allyn writes, your boss is watching you.

Companies have invested in software to log keystrokes, measure mouse movements, and capture screenshots. They can also track the time you use applications and require employees to keep their video cameras on while working. All this is done to ensure employees are really working and being productive.

Electronic surveillance isn’t new. A few years ago, a Fortune 500 executive had the IT department provide him copies of internal employee text messages. He did this in secrecy, but someone in IT leaked the practice.

Uncertainty registers as an error or a gap & something that must be dealt w/ before we can feel comfortable again (Scarlett)
Uncertainty registers as an error or a gap & something that must be dealt w/ before we can feel comfortable again (Scarlett)

What drives employee spying

Managing virtual teams for the first time can be stressful and overwhelming. Managers no longer can walk the floor to connect, observe, support, and coach their direct reports. Instead, managers need to learn new behaviors to lead a virtual team.

The rapid virtual team transition caused by COVID-19 has left managers and executives alike uncomfortable. Powerless to set standards for home offices and unable to control against home distractions, executives worry about the loss of productivity and control. To mitigate perceived productivity barriers, executives have invested substantial operational dollars in surveillance software as a way to ensure employee performance.

An executive’s logic may look like this:

1. I fear that employees who can’t resist home distractions will be unproductive. Why pay employees when they are unproductive?
2. To keep employees productive, we must increase control over employee behaviors.
3. To control behaviors, our managers need surveillance software to intervene when employees become distracted and unproductive.

The conclusion is faulty: surveillance software controls fail to maintain or increase productivity. Sure, it may lead to short-term gains, but employee performance will decrease.

Some leaders create genius all around them while other leaders drain intelligence & capability from an organization (Wiseman)
Some leaders create genius all around them while other leaders drain intelligence & capability from an organization (Wiseman)

Motivation 101: What works and what doesn’t work

Those who have worked in corporate America as long as I have may have observed two types of managers: The first leads teams that are productive and engaged while the second is an employee nightmare.

You can apply these categories to departments or companies as a whole. The first type has a culture in which employees thrive while other has a destructive culture.

Liz Wiseman writes about the two extremes in her book, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter. She describes two types of managers as diminishers and multipliers.

Diminishers use command and control to drive their teams resulting in demotivated employees. They produce destructive cultures.

Multipliers use techniques to amplify the capabilities of their teams resulting in motivated and engaged employees. With multipliers, employees excel and are engaged.

To explain how diminishers and multipliers influence employees, I’ll reference Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor’s research cited in Primed to Perform. Diminishers rely on indirect motives while influencers use direct motives.

Our environment is a nonstop triggering mechanism whose impact on our behavior is too significant to ignore (M. Goldsmith)
Our environment is a nonstop triggering mechanism whose impact on our behavior is too significant to ignore (M. Goldsmith)

Indirect motives: productivity killers

Doshi and McGregor identified three types of indirect motives: emotional pressure, economic pressure, and inertia. Diminishers use indirect motives to control behavior and increase performance. Indirect motives are external forces that distract employees from doing their work.

Surveillance software enables diminishers to use indirect motives. When managers confront employees about unproductive behaviors discovered through surveillance, this puts emotional or economic pressure on employees.

Some surveillance software automatically deducts from their paychecks when employees are idle. In an NPR story, one anonymous employee shared that her company uses a software package that triggers a pop-up window if an employee’s computer is idle too long. The message states:

You have 60 seconds to start working again or we’re going to pause your time.

In other words, employees who are idle too long have their pay reduced.

Such tactics could lead to feelings of disappointment, guilt, betrayal, or even shame. Would you want such emotions to compel employees to drive performance? Similarly, do you want employees to fear pay reduction as the performance driver?

Employees driven by indirect motives do not perform their work well.

Indirect motives = decreased performance

If you access the media stories like the ones referenced at the beginning of this blog, you’ll read about managers who spy on employees and the affect spying has on them. Employees who know that their managers use surveillance software describe themselves as becoming:

  • Less creative
  • Stressed and upset
  • Anxious and afraid
  • Demoralized
  • Embarrassed
  • Resentful and distrusted

Add COVID-19 to these feelings

In February or March, I either had the flu or the coronavirus. I never had a fever or a respiratory issue, but I experienced fatigue as the main symptom. Just when I thought the fatigue was over, I would be hit by a wave of exhaustion. Two months since this started, I still experience periods of weakness.

Executives and management should show compassion for employees who are already under stress from social distancing. Instead of using the surveillance stick, they should be understanding and supportive of employees who are willing to work while experiencing coronavirus symptoms.

If Southwest’s…culture teaches us anything, it’s that employees and customers will love us for creating an environment of fun
If Southwest’s…culture teaches us anything, it’s that employees and customers will love us for creating an environment of fun

Direct motivators: productivity enablers

Multipliers influence employees with direct motives. These motives connect to the work itself and lead to the highest levels of performance. Doshi and McGregor describe three direct motives: play, purpose, and potential.

Play: Have you ever watched a movie, navigating through a video game, or work on a puzzle while losing track of the time? Hours can go by. When you stop and realize how long you’ve been at it, you also notice that you’re not drained. Doshi and McGregor call this play in which doing the work itself is rewarding. This is why programmers can spend hours solving code and medical professionals can work long shifts: they can focus intensely without being distracted easily.

Purpose: Knowing that your work has meaning affects performance in a positive way. When I worked on an analysis project at a financial institute, I discovered that the employees had a strong sense of purpose. They knew how their work changed and enriched the lives of their customers. Purpose is a direct motive.

Potential: When work also develops your skills, the work helps you toward your personal goals. When this happens, your work is motivated by potential.

…a culture that inspires people to do their jobs for play, purpose, and potential creates the highest and most sustainable performance. — Doshi & McGregor

In their research, Doshi & McGregor found that managers who influence with direct motives while minimizing indirect ones lead to better ways of working and higher performance. When you have a culture with direct motives, management doesn’t need surveillance software.

Not all monitoring systems are bad

Monitoring your systems is different from monitoring employees. In a call center environment, data is crucial for servicing customers effectively. Knowing when customers become frustrated and hang up, why they call, and what is needed to resolve their issues enables resource planning and agent training to adapt to customer needs.

The art is to use monitoring systems as a data source for influencing employees with direct rather than indirect motives.

Employees want to do well at work. They don’t wake up wanting to perform poorly that day. Direct motives enable them to do well.

Final thought

During COVID-19, employees may need more support. If they are suffering from some symptoms but are well enough to work, they may need more time to complete tasks. Showing compassion is part of leadership, and so is finding ways to help others grow and develop. In the virtual work environment, managers can shine through acts of kindness and leadership.

Resources and References

Bernhard Mehl, Employee Monitoring Guide (accessed June 22, 2020).

All the following links last accessed June 10, 2020 (unless noted).

Sagi Eliyahu, How Remote Employees Can Remain Productive During A Pandemic.

Pamela DeLoatch, Productivity monitoring: Considerations for HR, from compliance to culture https://www.hrdive.com/news/productivity-monitoring-considerations-for-hr-from-compliance-to-culture/579182

Josh Levs, Work is something you achieve, not somewhere you go https://www.strategy-business.com/blog/Work-is-something-you-achieve-not-somewhere-you-go (accessed July 31, 2020)

I reference the following in this blog:

Liz Wiseman, Multipliers: How the Best Leaders Make Everyone Smarter

Neel Doshi and Lindsay McGregor, Primed to Perform: How to Build the Highest Performing Cultures Through the Science of Total Motivation

Laura Wronski, CNBC, Op-ed: The next Silicon Valley exodus — Over 25% of tech sector wants permanent work from home

Gary A. DePaul, Now Your Team Is Virtual. What’s Next?

Bobby Allyn, NPR, Your Boss Is Watching You: Work-From-Home Boom Leads To More Surveillance

Drew Harwell, Washington Post, Managers turn to surveillance software, always-on webcams to ensure employees are (really) working from home

Heather Kelly, Washington Post, Twitter employees don’t ever have to go back to the office (unless they want to)

About the author

Gary is a Leadership Author, Researcher, Consultant, and Podcast Guest. His latest book, What the Heck Is Leadership and Why Should I Care?, is available in paperback, eBook, and audiobook. You can learn more about Gary and his other books at https://www.garyadepaul.com.

Written by

Gary is a speaker, author, researcher, and leadership futurist. https://www.garyadepaul.com

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