HR mythbusting: Does surveillance improve performance?

Our series by Adrian Furnham and Ian MacRae explores what myths HRDs should be seeking to debunk in 2018

What does it feel like to be 'spied on' at work: subject to some sort of electronic surveillance? What sort of employer spends millions on equipment to spy on their staff? What does it say about the extent to which they distrust their staff?

Reasons for growth

It has been suggested that as many as 50% of employers now monitor email traffic and two-thirds internet connections. There are essentially three reasons for this increase in surveillance. The first has to do with costs and technological developments. Surveillance equipment is becoming ever smaller, cheaper and more powerful. The miniaturisation of monitoring products means they are less intrusive and more easily hidden, thus becoming less controversial. They are cheap to install and use.

The second is the opportunities for workers. Internet and email technologies have given workers more options for how to spend their time. They have more opportunities than ever to abuse and misuse their work time by doing all sorts of things on the Web. The temptation to play is huge.

Third, there have been changes in management styles, with some believing that monitored employees are more focused and productive than those who are less or totally unmonitored. Surveillance 'concentrates the mind.'

Around a third of employers say surveillance reduces or prevents the theft of company property, while a fifth claim that they monitor for signs of espionage or the uploading of confidential information to journalists, competitors or even tax authorities.

Surveillance techniques

Telephones can be tapped and all conversations recorded. Computer software offers such options as key stroke monitoring, screenshot capture, internet connection monitoring, email forwarding, content filtering and blocking and remote freeze and lock-up.

Old-fashioned closed-circuit television monitoring (CCTV) is common. Small, discreet cameras are everywhere. There is also the possibility of real-time surveillance. Through the use of GPS systems all mobile phone owners can be followed wherever they go.

Reactions to surveillance

Perhaps the most interesting issue is the psychological effect of surveillance on employees. What would you think or feel if you found out your employer was already doing, or intended in the future to do some serious monitoring of your workplace and equipment? Would it be worse if they were already doing it but had not told you? Would you believe all that about 'for your protection' and 'if you have nothing to hide...'?

A central question is: do employers introduce surveillance because there is a lack of trust, or does surveillance cause or exacerbate it?

Cameras increase anxiety and reduce productivity. Workers are frightened to take breaks and have an increased risk of repetitive strain injuries. Equally interestingly, the technology designed to improve communication reduces it. People chat less, help each other less and say less.

Surveillance infringes privacy. It can break trust or make it harder to establish trusting relationships. It gives power to Big Brother and turns workplaces into institutions like prisons. But, worse, it can increase the problem that it was introduced to counteract. It can start a vicious cycle of organisational deviance. The reason is usually because surveillance attacks the symptoms of problems rather than their causes.

The more control and the more autonomy people have at work is a good direct index of their satisfaction and stress levels. Surveillance need not necessarily interfere with these. Even so, the feeling that one is constantly snooped on does change the feel of the place.

So… the bottom line: does surveillance increase performance at work? It might for a few jobs but is too likely to seriously upset workers who feel they are being spied upon. Employers need to explain exactly why they monitor their staff, how that data is stored and analysed, and what it is done for. Paradoxically it can have a very negative effect on the psychological contract between employee and employer.

Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at UCL, adjunct professor of management at the Norwegian School of Management and co-author of Myths of Work with Ian MacRae. He was awarded an HR Lifetime Achievement Award at 2017’s HR Most Influential

Further mythbusting reading

Is there 'hidden' brainpower waiting to be unlocked?

Can people be sorted into personality categories at work?

Is nine to five the most productive way to work?