Support, not surveillance: maintaining employee productivity with HR software

Lesley Holmes, data protection officer at MHR, discusses how HR software can maintain employee productivity without being Big Brother

Employee monitoring software is nothing new. From keystroke monitors to boost productivity in clerical workplaces to anti-theft video surveillance in back offices, a large section of the workforce has long been subject to some form of digital monitoring at work.

However, the shift to remote and hybrid working over the past two years has brought with it a surge in demand for tools and technologies to keep tabs on employees at home. Research has found that sustained demand for employee monitoring software has shot up by 56% since the start of the pandemic – and these apps are becoming increasingly intrusive. They can register the time taken to read and respond to an email, monitor meeting attendance, and even film employees from their screen.

While the use of these technologies may vary from sector to sector, the rising popularity of software to monitor and track remote employees can clearly be linked with fears that a lack of direct supervision will decrease productivity. But such measures are also very likely to erode employer-employee trust. As it’s no secret that lower morale leads to lower productivity, employers must now start to use technology more constructively to engage their workforce.

A question of trust

Before any employer implements technology for the purpose of monitoring, they should consider how it will affect trust and morale. The use of such technology can severely undermine a culture of mutual trust and engagement, which is known to have long-term benefits in terms of productivity, loyalty, retention, and recruitment. When employees are facelessly monitored in their own homes, they often feel undervalued and under pressure, causing them to be less productive and less invested in their work. For example, successive lockdowns prompted many employees with dependants to work more flexible hours or to divide their day between work and caring for the elderly or young children at home. When monitoring software infringes on such complex time boundaries, employees are reduced simply to the sum of their 9-5 productivity, causing annoyance and disillusion where loyalty and dedication may have been before.

UK employment law requires employers to clearly inform workers in employment contracts or employee handbooks of how much monitoring they undertake and in what form – whether it is tracking web activity, using CCTV, or searching bags, for example. While employees are protected by data protection and human rights legislation, employers can legitimately monitor how work devices are used and for what purpose, provided they are transparent about their intentions and the measures used are “fair and reasonable”. Escalating to more intrusive monitoring requires fair suspicion, whether around performance or security related issues, and employees should be aware of any monitoring capabilities that an employer has at every stage of an investigation.

This issue was brought to light last year in Spain, when an employee successfully won a case for unfair dismissal based on security camera evidence. The employee had not been aware that the cameras were in use both for security and employee monitoring, causing the evidence to be deemed invalid in a court of law. However, the European Court of Human Rights eventually overturned the judgement of the employment tribunal due to the level of suspicion and the balance of the rights of the individual against those of the business that they worked for, demonstrating that all aspects of the situation need to be considered.

The effect these intrusive tools have on internal culture and employee morale throw into question whether they are ever the right solution. Even prior to the pandemic, UK bank Barclays was criticised for using software to monitor and pressurise employees in a bid to maintain high levels of productivity, with the employees’ grievances chiefly centred around the loss of morale the practice caused.

Widespread resistance to ‘Big Brother’ software has been further demonstrated by a recent survey for the trade union Prospect, in which eight in 10 workers said they would not be comfortable with camera surveillance, and two-thirds did not like key-stroke monitoring. Such a high level of monitoring is hardly conducive to productivity and is more likely to lead to staff seeking employment elsewhere.

Smarter software solutions

Rather than adopting software for such a negative purpose, employers should look towards a HR solution that offers an oversight of employee performance at the individual level, without any feeling of Big Brother monitoring.

Such technology can unite teams and bring workforces together through intuitive social media-type interfaces and frictionless interactions. The automated scheduling of frequent, one-to-one check-ins between managers and employees also ensures the performance and morale of each employee is constantly on the radar of managers, allowing for early intervention before problems develop.

Managers can provide the extra information or tools that struggling employees need to complete their work or to accelerate output. Alternatively, managers can reassign workloads where necessary, leading to smoother processes and more measurable productivity gains.

Regular check-ins, along with prompts to upgrade skills and qualifications, ensure employees are treated as individuals and are enabled to advance in their careers. Employers need HR platforms that actively engage – rather than antagonise – employees through regular updates on company and team events, successes, employee achievements, vacancies, training opportunities and market news. Training materials, webinars, group discussion forums, remote working and wellbeing information and advice should also be available to signpost staff to a variety of personal and professional support.

Overall, the technology should enable managers to gauge the mood and performance of each employee, so they have an accurate aggregate assessment of their team to report up the chain-of-command.

As younger generations enter the workforce, the culture of an organisation will become even more important in attracting and retaining new talent. Skilled employees will move on if they find that inflexible working policies or a lack of employer trust are hampering their potential. The onus is now on employers to connect and align dispersed workforces with user-friendly technology that is unobtrusive, mobile friendly, and intuitively aided by HR software tools such as chatbots. Rather than deploying Big Brother solutions, the organisations using technology that makes employees feel connected, productive, and supported, will be the ones that enjoy greater output and profitability in the long run.

Written by Lesley Holmes, data protection officer at MHR

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