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The consequences of workplace surveillance

Does modern surveillance technology undermine the ethos at the heart of a strong customer service culture?

“Autonomy and sense of control are intricately connected to wellbeing. The nature of work in the gig economy – with high levels of employee monitoring, performance ratings and centralised pay-setting – is therefore likely to have negative consequences for the wellbeing of its workers.”

This is an extract from an all-party parliamentary report warning of the negative fallout of worker monitoring at firms such as Uber. What will come as more of a surprise to many is that this kind of surveillance is emerging in more traditional quarters.

Marks and Spencer (M&S) has recently trialled the use of secret shoppers to film and record interactions between customers and staff. It says this will improve customer service. But it’s raising bigger questions about how far Big Brother work cultures should be allowed to go with the latest developments in spyware technology.

Making every moment special for the customer is the stated aim of the initiative, piloted between July and September across North Yorkshire, south and East Anglia and central Manchester. However, the way the programme was introduced left many staff and floor managers feeling troubled, and too scared for their jobs to speak up.

While the initiative may have been well-intentioned, the unintended consequences of putting employees under surveillance are potentially huge. Genuine customer service is about building relationships with shoppers; relationships formed when people are treating each other with courtesy, dignity and respect. The foundations for such relationships are ultimately based on trust. Yet introducing spy cameras is sending a signal to all staff that they ultimately cannot be trusted. The approach also undermines the authority of floor managers who are no longer sure that their judgement is valued.

The problems of staff surveillance are becoming widespread in UK industry, whether through secret video footage, monitoring people inputting data at keyboards, or physical trackers attached to workers in warehouses. Not knowing whether you are being filmed is anxiety-inducing, and according to one employee at M&S “it’s enough to put anyone on edge". Staff and managers have talked of “getting stressed out” by the possibility that at any time you may be “caught out".

This reaction ties in with research by epidemiologist Michael Marmot who proved that shop floor staff suffer stress-related illnesses four times more than top bosses, precisely because they feel they have limited control over what happens in their jobs. One member of staff said: “It’s not what M&S used to be like. We used to have a special feel, now we don’t, we’re just like any other shop”.

Is there an alternative to this modern management trend of using Big Brother techniques to monitor staff performance? All the research points to better customer service coming when people feel confident in themselves, confident that they can talk to shoppers, and feel proud of the work they do. When you take that autonomy away, when you stop treating staff as human beings, you see them stepping back and only doing the bare minimum.

There are alternatives, which move managers from supervising and controlling to coaching and bringing the best out of people. They do, however, require investment. Here is the challenge for businesses: are they going to return to investing in people, or will the focus on technology continue to break down human relations in the workplace?

Norman Pickavance is co-founder of the Centre for Organisational Renewal