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Remote Work2021-08-06

Why workplace surveillance is counter-productive

We examine why workplace surveillance is counterproductive and propose ethical and sustainable solutions to improve employee productivity.
Why workplace surveillance is counter-productive

Remote work & the concerns of monitoring productivity

Remote work or telecommuting has been a popular work model for knowledge workers for quite some time. However, the Covid-19 pandemic thrust the global workforce into adopting this model, where companies suddenly found themselves having to accelerate their adoption and usage of tech tools to enable business continuity in a disrupted environment. Over time, the global business community successfully adapted to the disruption, and today, we have realized that the paradigm shift to remote working can be a long-term and sustainable work model.

This new ecosystem brings with it endemic concerns that companies are faced with including ensuring productivity across their distributed teams, protecting company data, and ensuring IT compliance in their remote teams. As organizations continue to ensure business continuity, the focus is now on investing in people, technology, and processes that will allow organizations to thrive in a new normal.

An unfortunate misconception plaguing businesses, irrespective of industry or geography, is the notion that promoting productivity and ensuring business success can be achieved by monitoring employees. Work-from-anywhere saw a massive surge in demand for surveillance software that allowed employers to monitor subjective people-data including the use of tactics such as screen scraping, keystroke capture, location tracking, or video recording. Unfortunately, such surveillance tactics are counter-intuitive and have been proven to be ineffective and counterproductive. 

Our own research surveying several distributed teams indicated that, even in companies that valued employee privacy, managers and leaders were struggling to gain visibility of their hybrid and remote teams, resorting to using surveillance techniques in order to understand how their teams were working and how to improve their process flows.

Why employee surveillance does not work

It is counterproductive to building organizational culture

A popular MIT Sloan study researched 1,000 organizations across 17 countries and concluded that surveillance significantly created a chasm between employees and managers:

“We found that more than 92% of employees being monitored trust their employers less, and 81% of managers trust their workers less.” 

Another research by Baylor University found that there was an environment of increased employee tension and less job satisfaction that followed the usage of surveillance and monitoring software. “[O]ur study suggests that just because organizations can electronically monitor employee behavior, it doesn’t mean that they should do so,” the researchers wrote. Any workplace, remote or traditional, needs to be built on a foundation of trust, camaraderie, and esprit de corps. Only then can the organization strive for sustainable success. Surveillance does not fit in a culture of trust.

Reduced intrinsic motivation

Intrinsic motivation has been proved as the most effective means of nurturing an efficient and engaged workforce. Employees increasingly want to find meaning, purpose, and joy in their work and this reflects in their progress and their competence. A great threat to intrinsic motivation in a workforce is the use of surveillance software that leads to lower engagement and lesser creative output, as shown by the 2019 study by the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, which measured the unintended consequences of internet monitoring software.

High employee turnover

A brilliant workforce can be nurtured only in a meticulously and thoughtfully crafted human-centric work culture. Particularly, the modern workforce comprising millennials and GenZ demand that employers exhibit a commitment to the highest ethical standards in both their internal as well as external processes. The Deloitte Global Millennial Survey from 2019 found that 55% of millennials plan to leave employers that prioritize profits over people. If organizations intend on retaining their human talent, they need to understand that surveillance will be frowned upon by their workforce.

Risk of abuse of private data

As companies monitor employees through collecting and mining vast amounts of private data, it leads to a labyrinth of data issues. Ranging from instances of data breaches, identity concerns, to the misuse of data to discriminate individuals, the scope to abuse the data collected is a large risk that organizations should not have to deal with.

Anxiety and burnout

The abrupt and adhoc shift to remote work has caused an upsurge in problems of anxiety and burnout which is exacerbated by a culture of mistrust and bigbrothering. Reports show that employees that work in stringent monitoring environments suffer severe anxiety and burnout.

[Read: How to Prevent Software Engineers' Burnout?]

What to do instead

Build An Environment of Trust & Accountability

Employee wellbeing

Deloitte’s 2020 marketing trends report established trust as a business-critical metric since high-performing organizations differentiate themselves based on their culture of trust amongst all their stakeholders.

Leaders must commit to appreciating the nature of trust and the role it plays in organizational culture. They must build team morale where transparency is intrinsic, meeting goals is a unifying motivation, and teammates believe in each other’s commitments to delivering high-quality work.

Building trust is a long-term process and quite the journey, but here is a useful roadmap:

  • Think about what matters to all parties involved and communicate which processes your teams will nurture or remove to ensure an environment of trust
  • Design technology, processes, and workflows that support transparency and productivity
  • Make room for differences and diversity in all your team-building efforts
  • Always stay watchful for anomalies, problems, or bottlenecks
  • Implement the 3-step REVISE framework to building team culture:
    a. Reminding – promote integrity by providing positive reinforcement 
    b. Visibility – facilitate peer accountability in your processes
    c. Self-engagement – acknowledge ethical behavior to promote self-engagement

Prioritize Productivity Over Presenteeism

Data to drive engagement

Introspect into why your organization might want to monitor employees. Is it to ensure productivity or is it because of a need to feel in control? Once you have identified what your motivations are, track the right metrics using the right means. If productivity is your goal, identify KPIs and indicators of good work, burnout, or bottlenecks that you can track at team-level rather than individual-level in order to ensure that your teams are able to perform well. Use data to gain an understanding of your teams’ work processes and well-being, while making room for individual growth and autonomy. 

Quoting from our own experience, as a remote-first team, Hatica’s teams and processes are mindfully structured to keep productivity as the goal of all our endeavors. Our teams identify and agree upon metrics that will indicate work success, our weekly check-ins involve discussions on blockers and bottlenecks, and well-being is integral in our communication charter. We ourselves use our product to understand how our teams work and optimize our processes towards building an engaged and productive team while keeping a balance between engagement and deep work. We continue to learn and evolve to make remote work for us. 

Create visibility into people, processes, and technology

Encourage collaboration, communication, and connection amongst your employees. Leverage technology that facilitates participation across the organization to streamline and orient your people and processes with a shared purpose. Ensure visibility into your technology by monitoring your tech sprawl and staying cognizant of your IT infrastructure. 

Encourage self-improvement

Empower your workforce to constantly invest in their own development. Modern technology enables leaders with data to highlight employee and team track records to indicate how best to nurture a culture of learning. Popular experience has shown that a self-engaged and improving workforce is a more productive workforce.


Countless experiences have shown that individuals who take on added responsibility and accountability exhibit more productivity. Leaders must learn to delegate tasks, based on team members’ individual strengths and competencies to encourage creative thinking and problem-solving.

Closing Remarks

The global experience of moving entire workforces to remote work has shaken the roots of our archaic definition of what work and the workplace mean. Our resilience and our agility have helped us thrive in the new future of work. Companies should now strengthen this culture by investing in data-driven technology that builds trust, empowers employees to be productive, and ensures business success.

đź’ˇ Hatica equips engineering leaders with data-driven visibility into team workload allocation, effort alignment, and employee experience, and well-being, helping leaders build more engaged, resilient, and productive teams. Discover how you can help your distributed and remote teams to thrive.

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Table of Contents
  • Remote work & the concerns of monitoring productivity
  • Why employee surveillance does not work
  • It is counterproductive to building organizational culture
  • Reduced intrinsic motivation
  • High employee turnover
  • Risk of abuse of private data
  • Anxiety and burnout
  • What to do instead
  • Build An Environment of Trust & Accountability
  • Prioritize Productivity Over Presenteeism
  • Create visibility into people, processes, and technology
  • Encourage self-improvement
  • Delegate
  • Closing Remarks

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