How to help managers communicate about employee monitoring practices

Remote work has caused the number of organizations seeking out productivity tracking programs to skyrocket. Left unchecked, these policies can be inequitable and unethical.

It’s always uncomfortable when your boss walks by your desk and peers down at your computer. Nobody likes being watched, after all. But employee monitoring software, the digital equivalent of a nosy drop-in, is being increasingly used among remote and hybrid companies — and employees aren’t too thrilled.

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Global demand for employee surveillance or productivity tracking software is now 59% higher than it was at the beginning of the pandemic, according to research from Top10VPN. And demand has been 75% higher on average since the start of 2022 than it was in 2019.

Remote and hybrid employees aren’t taking this rising surveillance trend lying down; a 2021 survey from workplace research firm Gartner found that employees are twice as likely to pretend to be working when their employers use these tracking systems.

This disconnect — between employers who want to track productivity and workers who resent the idea of “Big Brother” keeping tabs on their workday — can breed distrust, which spells disaster for company culture and, in turn, retention rates.

“While employees should generally have no expectations of privacy on company technology, NY, DE and CT are now requiring private companies communicate a policy so employees know exactly what companies log and monitor,” said Cat Colella-Graham, founder of Cheer Partners.  “Given the sensitivity around privacy, it’s important to communicate with clarity and care. Employees need to know you understand how this may feel, and the monitoring measures are part of a larger cyber security measure. Hackers continue to become more sophisticated, which amplifies the need the ensure protects malware and security threats.”

That said, it’s on communicators to ensure that everyone at the organization knows your employee monitoring practices are ethical and equitable in practice.

Employee monitoring and manager comms

It’s likely that employee monitoring is unpopular with your workforce, but research shows it may actually be having the opposite intended effect on productivity. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth’s Kathryn Zickuhr notes that workers are actually more likely to be productive when they have greater privacy.

“When employers combine extensive surveillance with automated management—including automated firing in response to mistakes or deviation from the “norm”—workers must choose between competing priorities,” she writes.

This underscores the importance of empathetic, flexible manager comms, which communicators must strive to normalize in their physical and digital workplaces.

While employee surveillance systems are likely decided on at the highest levels of most organizations, managers are the ones who must act on them. This requires them to learn a specialized new set of communications skills focused on how to talk to your employees about surveillance, knowing that they’re likely unhappy with the policy.

In a Harvard Business Review piece titled “How to Monitor Your Employees — While Respecting Their Privacy,” Deloitte AI Institute Advisor Reid Blackman emphasizes the importance of flexibility.

“Some very hard-working and talented employees may be stretched extraordinarily thin due to a lack of school and child care options, for instance,” he writes. “These are people you want to keep because, in the long run, they provide a tremendous amount of value. Ensure that your supervisors take the time to talk to their supervisees when the numbers aren’t what you want them to be.”

These discussions about productivity (or the perceived lack thereof) should be taken on with a foundational assumption that employees are doing the best they can. Advise managers to not assume the worst in every situation and provide them with a set of respectful and inquisitive questions as a guide for the conversation.

Employee monitoring in policy

Communicators should take every opportunity to be involved in the writing of internal policies around employee monitoring, as you would with any policy that might prompt backlash or intense company scrutiny. Ensure that someone from your comms team is present when the policy is being decided on and written — that will make communicating the protocol to your managers and to other direct reports that much easier.

Additionally, communicators are crucial in ensuring that employee monitoring practices don’t disproportionately affect female workers or workers of color.

“A policy that says, ’This is how we monitor all employees’ raises fewer ethical red flags than a policy that says, ’This is how we monitor most employees, except for the most junior ones, who undergo a great deal more surveillance,’ Blackman writes.

Communicating about surveillance in a way that’s considered ethical also includes making sure workers know exactly how and when they’re being watched — even if that means risking the proliferation of employee workarounds. A 2021 Social Science Research Council study found that 23% of remote workers weren’t sure “whether their employer had begun using new technologies or changed workplace monitoring policies.”

Employee confusion about surveillance policies can be perceived as comms failure — it’s communicators’ responsibility to keep their workforces informed about pertinent changes. This requires you to regularly check in with the leaders in charge of employee monitoring to ensure there haven’t been any recent changes or updates.

Comms pros, how do you communicate with your employees about monitoring practices and policies? What are your best practices for equipping managers to handle these kinds of conversations? Let us know on Twitter @RaganComms.

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