Bosses spying on workers are breeding paranoia that makes them worse at their jobs and more likely to quit

February 2, 2023, 6:44 PM UTC
Bosses monitoring their remote workers out of productivity paranoia are just creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Shockingly, being watched isn’t always something that employees take kindly to.

As white-collar workers enjoy a bit of distance from the office, some employers have taken to spying on them to make sure work is getting done. Eight of 10 major private employers in the U.S. are tracking productivity, the New York Times revealed in a bombshell report on the trend last year. That involves everything from tracking keyboard activity to active time, which could result in missed bonuses or promotions. 

But this monitoring might be backfiring, according to new reporting by BBC. That’s likely because monitored workers feel a lack of loyalty stemming from their company’s mistrust. Such surveillance can actually “lead people to break the rules more in some circumstances,” David Welsh, a professor of management and entrepreneurship at Arizona State University, told BBC. 

He conducted a study in 2021 that found employees under the watchful eye of bosses were more likely to take unapproved breaks and work more slowly. Workers “felt like they were being controlled, and they had less of a sense of personal responsibility because of how they were being monitored,” he said.

It’s the exact opposite of what bosses want: more productive workers. It’s what Jared Spataro, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of modern work, dubs “productivity paranoia.” In a commentary piece for Fortune, he wrote that “leaders are worried their people aren’t working enough, while many employees are working more than ever.” Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella backed up his executives, saying that this paranoia needs to be assuaged by looking at data—which shows that hybrid work is most effective for workers.

Research regarding remote workers’ habits debunks the myth that those who work from home aren’t working as hard: Remote workers are actually more productive than their in-office counterparts. And remote employees are meeting more—there were 60% more remote meetings per worker in 2022 than there were two years ago, according to a study from Andrew Brodsky, business professor at University of Texas, and Mike Tolliver. Meetings are shorter but more frequent, a sign of greater engagement, the researchers posited in the Harvard Business Review.

Monitoring them only leads to overall resentment, and it’s not good for employee retention.

“Managers who over-monitor workers may also see people leave for workplaces where they feel more respected,” Karen Levy, associate professor in the Department of Information Science at Cornell University, told BBC. She added that people become more stressed when under constant observation, as it infringes on their autonomy and dignity. 

Unfortunately for bosses, the job market remains strong despite recession fears. There were 11 million openings in December, a five-month high. That’s all to say: If you intend to keep watching your employees, you might just have to watch them walk out the door.

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