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Big brother is watching your work

Smart buildings that monitor the movement of employees sound great. But when the boss gets too smart about it, monitoring staff can be a recipe for disaster.

Meet Mr Big.

Big BrotherHe is the boss of all he surveys. And, these days, he doesn’t just rely on his eyes.

Sitting behind his large mahogany desk, from where he runs a large organisation, he can watch his staff on a video monitor which allows him to select from dozens of channels, depending which office or department he wants to “observe”.

With a click of a button, he can observe which web sites a particular employee is visiting, or even who that person is e-mailing. Checking on when an employee arrives and leaves, or visits the cafeteria or the bathroom? Old hat for Mr Big.

Ah, yes, the pleasures of power. Mr Big always knew he was important, but until technology allowed him to get an insight into every nook and cranny of the lives of the people who made his organisation function, he was always worried that he wasn’t truly in control. Now, if only those scientists could come up with a device to read their minds…

Do you work for Mr Big? If you do, chances are you’re looking around for a new job with a new boss who trusts his staff and gets on with running the company rather than micro-managing it.

More and more, however, corporate bosses are being turned on to the idea of employee surveillance. In certain kinds of business it makes sense. Where productivity is measured by the minute, or where a large workforce has to be paid based on time spent on the job, the age-old concept of the punch-clock was the answer for more than a century.

In the 21st century, we have “smart buildings” that can do anything from automatically switching on the light when you walk into a room to giving your boss a printout of your precise movements throughout the working day.

A building that responds to your needs sounds great. A building that serves your boss’s needs for micromanagement is a recipe for human resource disaster.

One of the most dramatic examples of the former is the lighting system at Vancouver International Airport, where lighting designers were faced with the challenge of a system that would increase both administrative management of the building environment and employee control over their personal workspaces. According to Jim Oliver, chief operating officer of the Transportation Group at Ledalite Architectural Products, which installed the system, the combination of daylight sensors with personal control over workplace illumination could reduce electricity usage by 75 percent. The concept is disarmingly simple, he writes in the Lighting Design and Application journal:

“Terminal managers could program the lighting system to go on automatically when a motion detector senses that passengers from an arriving plane have entered a hallway or baggage area. Or airport office workers could use personal controls to automatically lower the light levels over their work areas in the morning and raise them in the afternoon. Integrated systems like these will allow lighting and energy consumption to more closely match actual requirements, while providing airport workers with the ability to control illumination levels in their work environment.”

And then there is the building that responds to the boss’s needs. An airport also provided the most recent example. A strike at Heathrow Airport a few years ago led to 100 000 passengers being stranded. The reason for the strike? A new electronic clock-in swipe card system, which staff feared would be used to change shift patterns, pay and conditions of employment.

It’s not the technology in itself that’s bad. An access system is often a crucial security tool. But the moment it becomes a tool for control rather than for security or productivity, it steps over a moral and ethical boundary. That boundary does not exist in law, but runs through the heart of every employee.

Australian academic Dr John Weckert, in a paper titled “Trust and monitoring in the Workplace”, found a number of benefits to employees of monitoring, but also found that workplace monitoring diminished trust, and too much of it could eliminate it altogether.

In the USA, a Purdue University study, “Examining Electronic Surveillance In The Workplace”, found that electronic monitoring had a direct impact on the foundations of productivity, such as job satisfaction, turnover and absenteeism. Poor employee relations and low morale, in turn, had an influence on the corporate bottom line, which could ultimately defeat one of the primary goals of electronic surveillance, namely productivity increase.

The message has still not reached South Africa, when one considers the extent to which large company’s resort to excessive monitoring of employees. And it’s not confined to the business world.

At some Johannesburg schools, for example, new access systems were installed a while ago at great cost, not to prevent unauthorised access, but to monitor the movement of teachers in and out of the schools. All employees were issued with electronic swipe cards, and had to clock in and out as they move on and off the campus. Of course, they were not consulted in advance.

There is probably no workplace in which employees are more closely monitored than in a school, with everyone from headmasters to fellow teachers to learners breathing down their necks. But in the culture for control, the need for surveillance always outweighs the need for a happy workforce.

During a CNN panel discussion entitled “Is It 1984 in the Workplace?”, a judge, Alex Kozinski, neatly summed up why such monitoring was not necessary in a well-run organisation:

“I don’t have any difficulty telling the productivity of people who work for me. I think most managers can set standards, and if those standards are met, it seems to me that is what the employer is entitled to.”

The school surveillance system had a happy ending: when the Mr Big behind that decision moved on, the system was dismantled.

Does your boss still want to be Big Brother? Offer him this advice from American law firm Fairfield and Woods:

“Employers should consider exactly what they need or expect to gain through monitoring…. employee monitoring may be counter-productive by resulting in lower morale, increased job stress, and perhaps even lower production… Employers should consider the expense of litigation, even if it appears likely that no specific law has been violated… the further an employer goes in monitoring employees or in disclosing information obtained through monitoring, the more likely it is that a lawsuit will be filed.”

Given that South Africa is developing one of the most employee-friendly bodies of labour law in the world, it won’t be long before bosses learn these lessons of technology misuse the hard way.

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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