Employee Surveillance: Is it Actually Affecting Work Productivity?

August 25, 2022

Short answer: Yes, it is, and not in the way we want. 

Business owners and managers have almost always used some form or another of monitoring their employees. It could be a simple glance over their desks to check what they are working on, a login/logout system to track time, or a frequent review of results. All of this was within the established norm and rightfully so, since it’s important for managers to stay aware of employee practices in their work environment. It was under ethical standards and no one ever raised an eyebrow. 

When Monitoring Turns Into Surveillance

Nowadays, and especially since COVID hit, this monitoring has turned into “surveillance”. Let’s explain how:

  • Instead of a glance over desks, we now have webcam shots and screenshots; 
  • Instead of a login/logout system, we have extra-vigilant systems tracking keystrokes and scroll actions to track active and idle time; 
  • Instead of frequent reviews, we have daily records of everything an employee has done: all websites visited, applications used, links clicked, emails sent, messages exchanged, etc. 

Slowly, the corporate world is slipping into the dystopian form that poor George Orwell warned us about so long ago. And very seriously, these “surveillance” systems are becoming more and more like Big Brother. 

According to this user (and many others), the problem isn’t the monitoring itself or the need of monitoring. That’s understandable because managers do need a way to watch employee productivity and work related trends. The problem is the “hitlerian tactics” that are being imposed.

In the Guise of Monitoring Productivity

Like we said, it is not that monitoring productivity is bad. But how this monitoring has transformed into surveillance in most contexts is where things get out of hand. In the guise of tracking time and monitoring productivity, many remote time trackers have begun to use the aforementioned invasive practices without realizing the impact they could have on employees and their wellbeing. 

Let’s take a look at some of these practices and see what they really do. 

1. Randomized or Semi-Randomized Screenshots + Webcam Shots:

Two words: Privacy Invasion. Not only does this invade your employees’ privacy, but it also isn’t very indicative of actual productivity. Random screenshots serve the purpose of “catching the culprit in the act” rather than monitoring productivity. Employees realize this and it makes them feel like thieves being spied upon; eventually then, many actually begin to act like it too. And that, ladies and gentlemen, reverses the productivity effect we wish all trackers would induce.

2. Keystrokes and Scroll Actions: 

I’ll give you one word this time: Useless. I could easily train my pet to move my mouse or simply automate mouse movements to cheat this practice. Even if I don’t do that, what do my keystrokes and scroll actions actually tell you? They certainly don’t indicate anything about how productive my work has been. Maybe I use a lot of shortcuts, which means fewer keystrokes on my record. Is my manager going to end up thinking I don’t get enough done in a day because I don’t press enough keys?

Case in point:

3. Access to calls, messages, and emails: 

This one is pure invasion of privacy. The data collected on communication could be sensitive and definitely isn’t needed to understand how productive employees are. In several instances, employees have reported being anxious about the protection of sensitive data they handle either professionally or privately. 

The main trend that comes out of these practices is of snooping on employee activity, when that’s not even why time tracking software were created. Instead, they are supposed to be tools which help boost productivity and improve efficiency while reinforcing positive environments. What’s happening now is quite the opposite. People are quitting because they cannot live with the dystopian surveillance going on.

You'll also find this interesting: Does Screenshot-based Employee Monitoring Reduce Productivity?

Are We Monitoring for Productivity or Are We Being Paranoid?

All of this leads us to the question WHY this trend of monitoring-turned-surveillance actually began. The reasons, as mentioned in the beginning, were quite legit. When the technology evolved and started giving managers more than they needed, it turned into paranoia. 

However, it’s important to remember the difference between ethical monitoring which really aims at boosting productivity in the workplace and creepy surveillance which invades privacy.

What employees say about surveillance

It must be clear by now what employees feel about surveillance. Some cannot imagine working with it; some put up with it just because they don’t see much choice; some understand it and are okay with it, while some have learned to evade the system with more creative ways.

What managers say about surveillance

Some managers these days realize that employee surveillance is detrimental to the workplace environment, even if remote. Many, however, still believe that this is needed and that they need to always keep an eye on their employees. Some others question that if this surveillance is going to take up the majority of their time, when are they going to get actual “managerial” work done? 

Ryan Fuller, the former VP for workplace intelligence at Microsoft himself was quoted saying the following. To us, it definitely indicates that we’ve all stepped into this new territory without knowing what to do with it and how exactly to use it.  

Brian Kropp, group vice-president and chief of HR research for the consulting firm Gartner, has the following to say about employee surveillance:

 “Even more than a culture of fear, it can create a culture of mistrust. This lack of trust makes everything more difficult for the organization to get work done.” 

BBC’s Alex Christian adds that it’s not necessarily the technology that’s the problem, but rather how it’s implemented. Now let’s see if this brand of implementation has proven effective in monitoring productivity.

Has monitoring proven effective?

The Harvard Business Review conducted a study which concluded the following:

“In our first study, we surveyed more than 100 employees across the U.S., some of whom were subject to monitoring at work and some of whom were not. We found that monitored employees were substantially more likely to take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage workplace property, steal office equipment, and purposefully work at a slow pace, among other rule-breaking behaviors. Of course, this survey only determined correlation — so to prove causation, we ran a second, experimental study. We asked another 200 U.S.-based employees to complete a series of tasks, and told half of them that they would be working under electronic surveillance. We then gave them an opportunity to cheat, and found that those who were told they were being monitored were actually more likely to cheat than those who didn’t think they were being monitored.”

Short version: Employees under strict surveillance are more likely to cheat the system than those who are not. This goes to prove that this sort of “monitoring” actually often has the contradictory effect of lowering productivity, leading employees to find workarounds instead of becoming more efficient. This happens because they know it’s the surveillance insights that determine their future at their company, rather than their actual, meaningful output. 

So what is “surveillance” actually doing?

  • Lowering productivity by giving employees the message that their screenshots and keystrokes matter more than their work
  • Making employees more likely to cheat the system
  • Destroying the employer-employee trust-based relationship
  • Putting unnecessary stress on employees, leading to more stress leave requests and more anxiety prescriptions, in many cases

Now you might ask: What other options do we have?

It’s clear you need something that can measure employee productivity and really help improve it without using invasive techniques. 

Another interesting read: Employee Time Tracking vs. Employee Monitoring: Which Approach is Better and Why?

Enter, timegram: A Privacy-First, Employee-Friendly Solution

What makes timegram different from other remote time tracking and monitoring software out there? Let’s find out:

No-screenshot policy 

Our very strict no-screenshot policy means that we employ privacy-preserving ways to measure employee productivity. Instead of taking randomized or semi-randomized screenshots and relying on keystrokes or scroll actions to track active time, timegram creates Highlights in which it records employees’ time and activity without the need to press any start/stop buttons. This lets your employees concentrate without any swords hanging over their heads.

Employee in control of highlights to show: 

Harvard Business Review says and CFO quotes that if employers want to monitor their employees, “they will need to forge a new ‘give and get’ relationship with employees and share more control with them over their own data.” The essential idea being that employees need to be given agency over the information they share and need to be involved in the process. 

Unlike most time trackers, timegram gives employees control of how they choose to exhibit their productivity. Once the day is over or once their task is finished, your employees can feel good about themselves and show you their best side by choosing which activity to show from their Highlights. 

Guess what this does? When the burden of showing productivity is dependent on their actual productivity and when their full focus is on work, they really do become more productive! Mission accomplished!

You, as managers, get purely productive insights on your dashboard 

Among a myriad of benefits, you get only the most productive and actually beneficial insights on your timegram dashboard. At one glance, you can see your employees’ progress, work capacity & availability, and overall productivity. And what’s more, all of this will be presented in the most visually-pleasing, digestible way that can easily be turned into exportable reports.

What actual productivity looks like 

At timegram, our goal is to give you purely beneficial insights and help you incorporate them in ways that could really improve your team’s productivity. We don’t give you screenshots, keystrokes, etc., but we do give you an accurate measure of productivity. 

Along with and according to that, we help you plan your projects with clearly set KPIs. Everything is visually presented and grouped so that you can comprehend these things without the burden of too many words. With clean, visual timelines, you can easily plan and assign tasks to your employees efficiently through your holistic dashboard, which shows you everyone’s progress and ability to take on more work.  

This comes with one of our favorite features: Gamification. None of us are in Kindergarten anymore but we can all agree that receiving points and badges still has pretty much the same effect. Even if we don’t gloat as much, we get the same mushy feeling on the inside when we’re recognized and our efforts are validated. 

What else do you need? And this is just the tip of the iceberg! Check out timegram’s  key features to see how else you can benefit from the solution  if you’re still not completely convinced. And when you’re head over heels in love with timegram, click here to sign up so that you can benefit from all of this awesomeness ASAP! 

timegram logo

Ready to use time to your advantage
with timegram?

Give it a shot!

Ehsan Elahi

About the author

Ehsan is a literature geek and obsessed with Saas, so he decided to combine the two and become a content marketer for SaaS products. Outside of work, he likes to play with lego bricks, his two daughters, and of course, World of Warcraft.

Start Your Journey With Us.

See why remote-friendly organizations globally love using timegram for their teams.

Start Your Journey With Us.

See why remote-friendly organizations globally love using timegram for their teams.

More Interesting Blogs for You

Try timegram Today!

No credit card required. No strings attached. Just pure time tracking automation magic.

Don’t Leave Empty-Handed!

Do you manage a remote team?

Get this guide to learn how time tracking helps measure remote team performance and why it is crucial to use the right tool for ensuring better employee productivity.

Get Your Guide