About 20 years ago, I published my dissertation research on workplace surveillance. Not surprisingly, I found that people being monitored electronically react very negatively when their privacy at work has been invaded, and respond in very negative ways. But back in 2001, no one could really visualize the kind of employee surveillance made possible by technology, and no one really cared.
Time brought the advent of more ubiquitous surveillance technology, and I thought that maybe people might start to worry. In 2005, I wrote about the cycle of deviance that is created with electronic surveillance, leading surveilled employees to seek out ways to evade monitoring, and engage in more or different types of deviance than the monitoring was designed to eliminate. Still, no one really cared.
No one showed much alarm when, in 2008, my colleagues and I wrote about how leaders who monitor their employees electronically are operating under an “illusion of control”by making the easy and lazy choice to lead by surveillance and fear rather than leading with character and developing trust with their employees.
It’s possible that one reason no one really cared is because tracking call times and keystrokes, monitoring GPS locations and bathroom breaks is the kind of surveillance that really only affects low-level administrative or blue-collar employees. After all, we need our customer service calls answered quickly and our packages delivered ASAP. None of the surveillance apparatus that makes this possible — at considerable cost to employee well-being — was being used to monitor knowledge workers or “skilled” employees.
That’s all changed. There’s a new and much more democratic form of employee surveillance emerging now, one cloaked under the guise of “people analytics.” The 2010s have seen the explosion and expansion of employee surveillance to the rest of us, and to a degree I never thought possible back in 2001. Surveillance is not just for the call-centre agent any more. Social listening algorithms track our responses to provocative trial balloons on the company intranet, smart badges track meeting contributions and send reports to managers suggesting that we should speak up more, implanted chips hasten computer log-ins and open doors with ease but also track our every movement.
This is the new surveillance frontier, run by data analysts who collect, analyze and control it all, often in cahoots with HR, who are either oblivious to the dangers, or drunk with their newfound, long-desired role as strategic organizational partners. This is the new employee surveillance being used to make career-defining decisions — who to promote, who to let go, who to relocate — without our knowledge or awareness. This affects us all.
COVID-19 is yet another democratic force at play that is making surveillance a ubiquitous experience — a blend of the new and old. The data scientists are still listening and tracking in the name of people analytics. But, as many of us will continue to work remotely for the foreseeable future, many leaders who distrust their employees and fear a loss of control are deploying the traditional surveillance tools once relegated to only the lesser-skilled ranks. Surveillance is not just for low-level customer-service staff or blue-collar workers any more. It’s for everyone. Your boss might be tracking you right now, and is perhaps wondering why you are reading this article and not working.
There are alternatives and options to surveillance. It’s easy for a leader to monitor how long you stay logged in and track your movements online. It’s hard for a leader to express trust and choose not to surveil you. It takes time, effort, and determination. However, trust can break the cycle of deviance that surveillance creates. A trusting leader elicits reciprocal actions from employees. Although some might abuse that trust, most will not.
Are you wondering if your boss going to remove the surveillance software when you go back to the office? Whatever your answer, be careful not to share it on social media or your organization’s internal chat system. The data analysts are listening, too. Welcome to the democratization of surveillance.
Even if you think you have nothing to hide, once your privacy is gone, you don’t get it back. It’s time to care.
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