The panopticon might be realer than we realize.
Earlier this month, ResumeBuilder.com surveyed 1,000 business leaders at companies operating on a primarily remote or hybrid plan. The vast majority of them admitted to monitoring their employees in some shape or form.
Perhaps most dystopian: More than one-third required employees to be on a live, monitored video feed. Three in four of those companies have fired employees because of what they found via their monitoring software. A similar amount—70%—said they’ve had employees quit over their refusal to be monitored.
Companies are sticking with their choices; 97% believe using the software has increased workers’ productivity. But just 10% of those companies admitted that they’re using the monitoring software as a means of encouraging a return to in-person work.
The employee monitoring boom coincided with the pandemic, when many industries switched to a remote-first model for the first time. Worried productivity would falter at home and hurt their bottom line, leaders struggled to lure workers back into office, and some turned to monitoring the workers insistent on staying home. Nearly 40% of the companies ResumeBuilder.com surveyed said they first began monitoring workers in 2020. But the trend has only grown; 20% started monitoring within the past year.
The survey echoes previous findings that a shocking 80% of major private employers in the U.S. track productivity, as the New York Times reported last year, from tracking keyboard swipes to active time online. The results could lead to missed bonuses or promotions.
“It’s clear from our survey that there are still organizations struggling to manage their workforce post-pandemic,” ResumeBuilder.com’s chief career advisor Stacie Haller wrote. “The focus on hours worked versus actual productivity … seems to reflect the challenges management teams are facing.”
Resentment hamstrings innovation
Despite employers’ beliefs that monitoring remote workers can make them more productive, they’re only breeding a paranoia that makes their efforts backfire.
When asked by ResumeBuilder.com how they use their monitoring software, most companies said via monitoring web browsing and application use (62%) and blocking certain content and apps (49%). But a surprisingly high percentage—37%—require workers to be on camera all day. Of this group, nearly all (93%) say they monitor the live video feed, often for four or more hours per day. Naturally, this doesn’t fly for many workers, who end up quitting.
In fact, monitored workers tend to be less loyal and extend less effort because of their fundamental mistrust of their company. In 2021, David Welsh, a management and entrepreneurship professor at Arizona State University, conducted a study 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 told the BBC.
Indeed, ResumeBuilder.com’s study found that remote workers being monitored usually spend two to three hours of the workday non-productively, with some time spend on non-work activities like browsing the internet or social media. “But I would point out that two hours may be easily wasted when working in-house as well,” Haller said. “However, in-house employees are not being monitored in the same way. It is not surprising that many employees do not want to feel like Big Brother is watching them daily.”
As bosses become more confident in their workers’ ability to perform without oversight, “software monitoring will hopefully become antiquated,” Haller said.
That’s putting aside the fact that, despite all the spying and resentment, hybrid workers are the most productive, engaged, and optimistic about their work and its impact. Maybe the best thing bosses could do is leave their people alone.