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Digital Workspace

In the new era of hybrid working, is employee monitoring unavoidable or untenable?

Jason Conyard, CIO, VMware

The dust is starting to settle on the events of the last two years and with it, business leaders are facing a future redefined by the evolution of hybrid working. Driven both by necessity and innovation in the tools that underpin a digital-first strategy, the opportunity for greater flexibility and balance is proving popular with employees – 79% say that remote work technologies have enabled them to work more efficiently than before.

The question that business leaders now find themselves needing to answer is – how do I ensure the productivity of my staff wherever they choose to work?

It’s a question that doesn’t have a simple answer. But to help inform thinking around it, I have been speaking to various experts in the areas of monitoring and employee performance to get their perspectives, so thank you to Carissa Véliz, Author of Economist Book of the Year: Privacy Is Power and Douglas Bamford, Researcher & Tutor in Philosophy and Political Economy at The University of Oxford. I asked them – in this new world of hybrid work, which approach more accurately measures productivity – software tools that surveil individual performance or output and performance metrics, open communications, and engagement? Watch my full discussion with Carissa above, or scroll down to read highlights of my conversations with the two experts.

The gradients of monitoring

My discussions with both experts yielded some interesting responses, with arguments that considered the benefits of maximizing productivity, on the one hand, to ensure that employees felt they had the freedom and independence to work in a way that suited them best. Douglas made the interesting point that monitoring could also be used by employees themselves to check their own productivity, and “give them opportunities to show what they can do and improve their own standards”. But while employees aren’t against monitoring altogether – 59% recognise that their organisation has had to develop new ways to monitor productivity as part of the move to hybrid working – Carissa argues, “there is a huge gradient of possibilities for how we monitor people, from simply their results to micromanaging every second of the day”. Where monitoring is happening, employees need to be comfortable with it, and have full transparency on what data is being analysed.

Avoiding unhappy employees

41% of companies currently in the process of implementing device monitoring, are seeing “increased” or “drastically increased” staff turnover. For Carissa, this is because increased monitoring in the workplace leads to work encroachment which in turn can lead to unhappy employees.

And while not against the use of monitoring tools, Douglas agrees that they need to be used to aid employees or employers will risk losing talent. “Employers who are tempted to use surveillance software in ways that workers aren’t going to like are likely to have bad practices already and when the job market becomes more competitive, employees are likely to jump ship for employers that are more collegiate.”

The importance of a transparent framework

It’s not just day-to-day productivity that employers should be looking to enhance and support but also the time to be creative. Creativity is what delivers true change for a business and its customers. “We are most creative when we have the space to try things out, get things wrong, feel vulnerable”, says Carissa. “But how can you do that while people are watching you?”

To combat this, Douglas believes transparency is key – “tools aren’t there to catch them out but to be an aid”. Currently, almost a quarter of employees don’t even know whether their organization has implemented device monitoring systems on their devices to monitor their productivity. From my perspective, whatever their motives, employers should have a clearly documented framework established and be clear on what the process is for changing those policies, including prior notification of changes to employees.

Understanding internal risk

There are ever-increasing restrictions around data to protect it from those wanting to use it for harm. Carissa believes that collecting data from surveillance can be dangerous – “every data point that you have is a potential lawsuit”. Instead of always looking at risks from an economic and competitive point of view, she suggests that employers should consider how they are creating risk internally by collecting unnecessary personal data that they will struggle to protect.

Building trust

“Anywhere working” should empower employees to be productive wherever – and however they choose to work. Managers need to have open conversations with their teams about performance measurement, their expectations, deliverables and agreed-upon KPIs (key performance indicators). There are lots of ways to achieve this – but all forms of monitoring and measurement must be done on a person-by-person basis according to their roles, and openly with employees bought into the process. Employers need to build trust as opposed to forcing talent out the door with intrusive surveillance.

So, which is the right approach – individual performance surveillance or output and performance metrics, open communications, and engagement? These insights from Carissa and Douglas urge transparency, trust, and empowerment over underhand and secretive surveillance measures. A digital strategy for successful anywhere working should be rooted in flexibility and choice, to allow employees to be connected, collaborative and productive.

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