Monitoring Employee Productivity, Balance Surveillance with Transparency

Machine learning can identify team productivity opportunities and boost inclusive engagement behaviors -- but it's important to be up front with employees around how their work is being watched.

No Jitter, Nathan Eddy

January 3, 2024

5 Min Read
person working from home using smart phone and notebook computer

This article was originally published on No Jitter.

As work-from-home trends settle into permanency, organizations are increasingly turning to employee productivity monitoring tools to ensure operational efficiency and maintain oversight.

The adoption of these tools has surged as organizations seek to optimize workflows, safeguard sensitive data, and manage remote teams effectively.

However, this trend sparks debates over the ethical implications and potential drawbacks associated with monitoring employee activities, including the risk of creating an oppressive "Big Brother" type of work culture where the boss is constantly peering over the employee's shoulder.

A recent Gartner survey found that despite widespread distrust of such monitoring at its minimal level, 96% of digital workers expressed willingness to accept monitoring if it provided specific benefits.

Among the top preferences, 34% are open to monitoring for access to training and career development, a third for job-related information support, and three in 10 for proactive IT assistance when encountering technical issues.

Tori Paulman, research analyst in Gartner's employee experience technology team, says applications and technologies offering observational data offer an increasingly important tool in the management and leadership of a distributed workforce.

Related:Federal Government Uses Push Notifications to Track Apple, Google User Contacts

"It’s not enough simply to observe behavior and actions. Workstyle analytics capabilities include collection, analysis and reporting of data, coupled with next best actions and interventions," they add.

From Paulman's perspective, an example of good management practices, informed by monitoring/observation tools, could include collecting worker collaboration patterns, analyzing them with machine learning, reporting on team productivity opportunities and providing employee nudges around inclusive engagement behaviors.

"At the highest levels of trust, organizations may use observational applications and techniques to understand the workforce's experiences or relationships, but they aren’t monitoring how, when, and how much work is being done," they explain.

Setting Expectations, Fostering Transparency

 Hired CEO Josh Brenner explains it’s critical to set expectations upfront, clearly defined and aligned with the organization’s mission and values.

"If companies plan to leverage employee monitoring tools, they must do their due diligence to be transparent about what tools are in place and disclose their intent for using them," he says.

To do so effectively, organizations should establish a well-defined policy clearly outlining how such software will be deployed – whether for monitoring emails, project management, specific tasks, or overall time management.  

"Secondly, because trust is a big component of these endeavors, communicate intent as you collect feedback," Brenner adds. "Transparency is key, and employees need to know privacy, data security, and ethical use are top of mind while you find areas that need greater support or employees who need training."

He stresses that open communication is crucial when it comes to leveraging employee monitoring software.

"While legal, deploying such tools without transparency can erode trust within an organization," he cautions. "This is why informing employees and obtaining their consent upfront is key."

Michael Brown, vice president of technology at Auvik Networks, says there is an "evident tension" between employee monitoring and personal privacy. 

"While leveraging tools to monitor an employee’s activity can provide deep visibility and valuable insights for an organization, there is a very thin line before it may violate an employee’s privacy," he explains.

On the other hand, although a complete lack of monitoring protects employee privacy, it may pose significant security and productivity risks for an organization. 

"Neither of these two extremes is typically the right answer, so it is imperative for organizations to identify the correct balance between obtaining critical visibility around productivity levels while maintaining privacy for their employees," Brown says. 

Monitoring in the Age of AI

Portal26 CEO and founder Arti Raman notes productivity monitoring tools have always been a controversial subject, but in the age of AI, the debate takes on fresh significance.

"Whereas before, one could argue that employers should lean towards trust rather than monitoring, with the widespread use of AI to aid productivity, monitoring becomes absolutely essential," he says.

This is not just to ensure employee productivity but also to ensure that AI is being used responsibly, employees themselves are not harmed using AI, employers do not lose data or IP in the process, and employee use of AI meets compliance, security, and policy guidelines.

Raman explains such tools can be put in place to monitor and measure security, privacy, and compliance risk, as well as monitor usage of applications to provide appropriate training and education.

"Additionally, AI-aided productivity is going to substantially add to the cost of production, and this is also a strong reason for employers to maintain visibility into how it is being used," he adds.

He points out companies can leverage sophisticated lights-out monitoring techniques such as encrypted analytics to receive and analyze employee productivity data.

"Analytics should remain in the background as long as there are no risk or usage flags that are tripped," Raman says. "In the event that there is an incident pertaining to inappropriate behavior, then and only then should information pertaining to usage become visible to the company, and action can be taken."

Gathering Feedback, Addressing Concerns

At Hired, Brenner has placed stress on the importance of employee feedback in pivotal workplace decisions.

"When opting for a remote-first working model, we implemented surveys to gather feedback on WFH preferences," he explains. "This same approach extends to employee monitoring." 

By fostering open discussions, companies address concerns about what activities are tracked, how the software functions, who accesses the data, and the security measures in place to protect privacy.

"For AI-powered monitoring tools, companies should be cognizant of AI data regulation laws in place that require employers to inform candidates of any personal data collected during hiring and promotions," Brenner adds.

Such legislation was enacted in New York City (as of July 2023), while other locations, including California, Washington DC, and Vermont, are in the process of enacting similar AI-related laws.  

Paulson agrees executive leaders must recognize and plan for the risks of observation and monitoring on human-centric strategies.

They note Gartner predicts through 2027, organizations that use employee productivity monitoring will have doubled the rate of "quiet quitting" compared with their peers.

"Employees broadly fear the introduction of new and more invasive measurements into their work," they caution. "Allow employees the opportunity to opt into observation in exchange for something that helps improve their employee experience."

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No Jitter

About the Author(s)

No Jitter

No Jitter, a sister publication to ITPro Today, is a leading source of information and objective analysis for enterprise communications professionals and decision-makers faced with rapidly evolving technologies and proliferating business/management challenges.

Nathan Eddy

Nathan Eddy is a freelance writer for ITProToday and covers various IT trends and topics across wide variety of industries. A graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, he is also a documentary filmmaker specializing in architecture and urban planning. He currently lives in Berlin, Germany.

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