Managing

Webcams and monitored bathroom breaks: Why employee monitoring is counter-productive

Ian Whitworth /

employee monitoring

Scene Change co-founder and Motivation for Sceptics blogger Ian Whitworth. Source: Supplied.

My friend Sarah* got an exciting new job at a fast-growing company. And after just three months she’s pulling the pin. Even though the company has a good product and mostly good people.

It’s due to the control-freakery of her new boss. She gets up from her desk and he says: ‘Where are you going?’

When the answer is to the bathroom, that is not okay.

Sarah is a senior executive with 20 years’ experience in some of the biggest companies in the country and is accustomed to, well, certainly going to the bathroom without submitting an application.

There is no private detail off-limits to Mr Stalky.

“I’m going to lunch.”

“Where? How long for? And who with?”

That’s not an exaggeration for effect, those were his actual words.

The clincher was the right to work at home. The company is okay with you working the occasional day at home, because it’s 2019. But you have to have a webcam on you, streaming back to the office all day, so they can see you working at all times.

What the actual fuck.

Her boss also works from home one day a week, and streams himself to a big monitor in the office so they can see and hear him at all times. In his exercise shorts, with his current wife popping in and out of the shot to say hi.

I’m a small-business person, and I thought, ‘maybe it is I who is out of touch?’ So I asked a few HR people who do multinational work and asked if this was something that happens in big business.

Their response was: ‘We have never heard of any company doing that, that is insane, and your friend must pack up her belongings and run.’

Repulsed though she is, Sarah wasn’t getting the worst of his creepin’. A female colleague was having some work issues, so he arranged a performance management program, in which she was required to catch up with him every two weeks on an ongoing basis. For dinner.

Yes, dinner. She asked my friend if she really had to do that because it made her feel weird. Just the fact she didn’t feel comfortable giving him a straight up ‘no’ speaks volumes for the power structure in these situations.

There was no suggestion he was actually hitting on her. He just enjoys the control, and in all his years with that company, nobody’s ever taken him aside and said: ‘Seriously mate, what is wrong with you, these are employees, not loyal subjects of your imperial realm.’

You have to wonder, what is with the corporate urge to control the minute details of people’s lives?

It’s always been there in a certain type of manager, but each year brings new stalker technology to keep those mice at the requisite wheel speed.

Amazon uses wrist bands that log your warehouse box-picking speed and sends you instant messages if you’re dropping below the herd average. If you don’t lift your game, it generates an automatic termination notice so they save the cost of having a human fire you.

A US vending machine company offered its staff the chance to get microchipped like goddamn pets, and incredibly, half their staff agreed.

I know several companies who make their staff clock on and off each day with a photo on a wall-mounted iPad, all timestamped just like you’re a kidnap victim. The underlying message is: ‘We think you might try to steal a few minutes from us by getting one of your friends to sign you out, so up against the wall and let’s see your face, perp.’

These same companies will do internal training courses where they do team-building exercises and say ‘our people are our greatest asset!’ Those are just words. But their actions and systems all say, in big glowing letters:

You might get a few extra minutes a day out of people with your surveillance system, and that would make for a good ‘cumulative annual hours saved’ chart to give your chief financial offier a mild tingle of arousal, but those staff are working all day in a state of fear and anxiety because you and your robots are stalking them around the clock. How is that productive?

It’s a spin-off problem from the constant urge to be, or at least appear, busy all the time. I really recommend this Rory Sutherland article in defence of doing nothing more often: “All salaried jobs are biased against inaction. Yet, in an age of constant disruption and over-abundance of data, choosing what to ignore is a much more valuable quality than overreaction.”

Surveillance and stalking just make good people like Sarah run away, leaving you with only desperate staff who can’t get a job elsewhere, doing as little as they can get away with.

A major part of business today is inspiring your people to do more just than the basic job description. Otherwise, your only competitive edge is the lowest price.

Do you really want an eternal downward price spiral fuelled by ever-greater human sacrifice? Just so that one day, you can build a luxury survival bunker in New Zealand and be safe from the post-apocalyptic scavengers? Come on, be better than that.

*Not her real name.

This article was first published on Motivation for Sceptics. Read the original article.

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Ian Whitworth

Ian Whitworth is a reformed branding and advertising creative director turned entrepreneur, who co-founded corporate audiovisual company Scene Change.