Employee monitoring is not the way to increase productivity

Tracking your staff’s every move while they’re working from home will do little to improve trust or engagement, argues David Liddle 

Your emails are being monitored. The number of computer keystrokes you make is being logged. The comfort breaks you take during the day are being counted. It may sound like a fictitious scenario cooked up by a workplace futurologist but, according to recent research, this level of surveillance is becoming a reality for an increasing number of employees. 

In a poll of more than 3,000 workers commissioned by the TUC, one in seven said employer monitoring had risen during Covid. More than a quarter reported having their daily communications screened, while 13 per cent had experienced desktop monitoring.

What on earth are the organisations employing these draconian tactics thinking? Do the HR professionals signing these systems off really believe that ‘Big Brother’-type behaviour is going to make people work harder and become more productive?

Dig deep into the organisational psyche and we can begin to understand where this is coming from. The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed gaping holes in the management capability within businesses. UK plc was already suffering from poor productivity, low employee engagement and unacceptable absence levels. Throw a rampant virus into the mix, and management skill levels have been stretched to the limit.

With widespread remote working thrust upon them, many businesses have felt they are losing control. They can’t see their people, they don’t know if they are doing the job they’re being paid for, and the knee-jerk response has been to find some way of snatching back command of the situation. The micro-management we thought we had all waved goodbye to has re-emerged and, rather than trusting people to get on with it, we have resorted to looking over their virtual shoulders.

The problem is that this approach eats away at the psychological contract between managers and their people and the social contract that glues an organisation together. Trust, respect and clarity about boundaries is at the heart of this unspoken, but important, relationship between employers, HR, leaders, managers and their employees. 

When the social and the psychological contracts break down, there are lasting consequences. Trust is eroded, motivation declines, engagement drops and performance takes a nosedive. Teams become fractured and there is increased potential for damaging and dysfunctional conflict to emerge. CIPD research bears this out. A recent report has shown using technology to monitor employees’ every move breaks trust, damages morale and leads to stress and anxiety. Barclays is one organisation that has seen this first-hand. Earlier this year, it was widely reported that the bank had been forced to ditch software that tracked time staff spent at their desk after an outcry from employees (and a resulting investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office).

There is a better way. If the last year has taught HR anything, it is that if you trust people and treat them well, they will go the extra mile and give their best in return. 

The pandemic has presented the profession with an unprecedented opportunity to step up and have a transformational effect on the way the business manages its people. It’s time to scrap the rigid, bureaucratic and out-dated HR policies and management systems that we use to tackle conflict, complaints and concerns. HR and managers need to focus instead on developing people-centred, values-based workplace cultures. These transformational cultures allow managers to have open, honest, collaborative and confident conversations with their people.

If good-quality dialogue underpins management practice in the business, there will be no need for draconian rules. If managers have the courage and competence to communicate effectively with their people and establish clear boundaries and expectations, there will be no need for intrusive monitoring systems.

If organisations want to emerge from the pandemic and thrive in the future, they need to start treating people like adults, and deploy more collaborative, compassionate ways to manage them.

David Liddle is CEO of The TCM Group, founding president of the Institute of Organizational Dynamics and author of Managing Conflict