Hot topic: Businesses using spyware to monitor productivity

Barclays bank found itself at the centre of a ‘Big Brother’ debate when it announced it would be installing software on its London based employees’ computers that would monitor productivity in real time.

It has since decided to not go ahead with the performance monitoring system, but the discussion around employee ‘spyware’ still remains.

Questions around employee wellbeing and privacy, as well as the overall ethics surrounding this type of employee performance monitoring, all need to be addressed.

Could real-time Big Brother-style employee monitoring be the future of people management? Or is it just an intrusive and inappropriate form of watching our workers?

Jan Schwarz, co-founder of Visier, says:

“One of the toughest challenges for any organisation, department or team is to monitor employee performance at scale.

"If you’re running a business of five to 10 people, then it’s relatively straightforward to keep tabs on their productivity. A CEO of a large enterprise or the head of a 40-person department doesn’t have that luxury.

In this context it is easier to understand the motivation behind banking giant Barclays’ decision to rollout computer monitoring software, but it is also easy to see why the response from employees was so negative and lead the bank to take an embarrassing U-turn.

Barclay’s employee monitoring problem is a reminder that any technology, but especially solutions in the HR space, must be supported with a well-thought-out employee engagement programme.

Anything that involves measuring staff is a potential hot potato, so you need to make sure your internal communications address any potential sensitivities right out of the gate. Also, top-down communications will only get you so far. It is critical to build consensus and address concerns from the bottom up through focus groups, consultations and internal ambassadors.

Every organisation stands to gain from understanding employee productivity and performance more deeply. However, as Barclays showed us, it pays to remember that the fastest route from A to B isn’t always the best.”

Mary Walker, partner and employment law specialist at law firm Gordons, says:

“Employee performance monitoring is undoubtedly a useful management tool, particularly given the increase in data which is available to employers as a result of technological progress.

"Whether it is GPS data on company-owned vehicles, communications via mobile phone or email, or ‘clocking in’ data through smart system logins and entry systems, employers have access to a wealth of information which gives them the facility to better monitor performance – and often in real-time.

"That immediacy of data is the big difference here. Monitoring employees through their use of emails, to give one example, is nothing new of course, but with the advent of ‘big data’ and the continued development of smart, connected devices in the workplace, organisations have enhanced visibility of their people, performance, assets and locations at the click of a button.

"Ultimately, this is a learning mechanism. Some will call it ‘big brother’ but for me it’s simply a reflection of technological development – as long as it is used within reason. Any employer has a legitimate interest in ensuring that employees are working efficiently, and today’s technologies enable that employer to do this more effectively, more accurately and without any grey areas.”

Check back tomorrow for part two of this hot topic.

This piece appears in the April 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk