“Big Brother” at Work: Employees’ Best Friend?

An article in The New York Times last week by Steve Lohr detailed new technologies used in the workplace to monitor employees. At first thought, it sounds creepy. The image of an over-zealous boss with a headphone listening to personal conversations comes to mind. But, on the contrary, the monitoring technology is being used to highlight productive workers and to find ways to help employees work better. One call center instituted coffee breaks after noticing through monitoring that employees are more productive with social interaction. Another company, a restaurant, promoted a waiter after data from monitoring revealed his high level of productivity.

As the article notes, privacy boundaries need to be established so employees’ private conversations are not exposed, but with boundaries established, is there a down side? There appears not to be a down side for those who are genuinely productive. One gray area that could arise, however, is what monitoring data doesn’t tell you—the reasons a worker may not be productive. Many of these systems seem to be numbers based—as in the number of calls taken and the number of minutes each call required before the issue was resolved or the sale was made. What happens when a situation such as one worker having to take breaks from her tasks to help another, or one worker distracted by a co-worker, arises? That worker will have fewer successful calls noted in the monitoring data, while the co-worker who took her away from her work may be tracked as being more successful.

In addition to establishing privacy boundaries to prevent personal conversations from being overheard, use of monitoring technology should be coupled with interviews with employees in which the data collected is reviewed with them and the employee has a chance to explain. Besides giving seemingly poor performers a chance to explain what happened, interviews with employees to review the data can reveal a surprising backstory to a successful performance. Let’s say you recently renovated the call center and created more space between workers and more effective noise barriers between cubicles. A few employees are doing much better, while it has made no difference to another few. An interview with the employees who are doing better might reveal that it was just a coincidence—they actually are doing better now because a personal issue that had been distracting them has been resolved, or, maybe they just finally are starting to get the hang of their job. On the other hand, those who are doing poorly now may feel more isolated from their co-workers—they liked the feeling before the renovation of working closely with one another. The point is until you talk face to face—in long form with words, rather than numbers—you’ll never know the real reason behind increases and decreases in productivity. Numbers don’t lie, but they also don’t tell you the whole story.

So far, all the monitoring systems I’ve heard of are for positions that can be easily quantified with number of sales or customers served. What monitoring technology do you think will be available in the coming years for those of us who work in non-customer-facing, non-sales positions? I would never want my conversations with co-workers or business associates recorded because it would make me self-conscious and stifle the interaction, but I wouldn’t mind a way to track those of us who are productive and those who do more talking and “planning” than completing. I never used to feel this way, but I think I’ve finally come to a point where I would welcome an employee self-reporting system in which at the end of every week (or even every day) we could easily (meaning it shouldn’t take more than five minutes) list the work we’ve done. The system could give a space for links or attachments showing our work. Such a system would give managers and the heads of departments a true sense of the real producers, while identifying those who, in reality, get very little done despite their big plans.

How do you feel about employee monitoring technologies in the workplace? Do you think it’s an intrusion on employee privacy, or a great way to spotlight and reward those who are the most productive?