Workplace surveillance is a mixed bag - opinion

From the time of the Industrial Revolution, employers have been distrustful of employees and have repeatedly found it necessary to implement systems devoted to monitoring and surveillance.

 A SECURITY camera at the offices of artificial intelligence start-up SenseTime in Hong Kong: Today, hardly an action takes place that is not digitally recorded or entered in some database, says the writer. (photo credit: TYRONE SIU/ REUTERS)
A SECURITY camera at the offices of artificial intelligence start-up SenseTime in Hong Kong: Today, hardly an action takes place that is not digitally recorded or entered in some database, says the writer.
(photo credit: TYRONE SIU/ REUTERS)

It was way back in the middle of the 19th century that the phrase “the more things change the more they stay the same” entered into use. No matter that we are well into the second decade of the 21st century, it’s blatantly obvious that many of the lessons learned a century or so ago are as relevant today as they were then.

And even though the cyber revolution has been with us for less than 50 years, truths that were discovered in both the physical and social sciences – resulting in changes to our understanding of how we interact with the environment around us – have been transformed into a format that can be accessed from a multitude of devices and are available to enhance day-to-day operations and activities. Nowhere is this more vividly highlighted than in the area of organizational and human resource management.

Collections of case studies that focus on human behavior in the workplace invariably include the “Eureka” observation made during the experiment conducted at the suburban Chicago Hawthorne Western Electric plant in the late 1920s. Dubbed the Hawthorne Effect, the study provided industrial engineers and organizational psychologists with comprehensive data which supported the theory that individuals are likely to modify all or some aspect of their behavior in response to their awareness of being observed.

Interestingly, productivity and quality improved regardless if the workers were subjected to positive or negative changes to the environment in which they performed their tasks and responsibilities; the awareness that they were being watched automatically resulted in improved performance.

But while the overall outcome of the Hawthorne Effect might very well be the same today as it was a century ago, the methodology used in conducting this study would, if the study were conducted in the year 2022, be dramatically different. Then, productivity and performance were for the most part manually calculated, and product quality was based on controlled or random sampling. Today, hardly an action takes place that is not digitally recorded or entered into some database, with sophisticated metrics ready for extraction, manipulation and number crunching.

 Low wages, workplace disrespect, no career advancement and employee dissatisfaction have helped contribute quiet quitting, which has become popular on TikTok (Illustrative). (credit: PXHERE) Low wages, workplace disrespect, no career advancement and employee dissatisfaction have helped contribute quiet quitting, which has become popular on TikTok (Illustrative). (credit: PXHERE)

Similarly, during the study at HWE, the employees were aware that their behavior and work-related conduct were being observed; today, company-wide networks have made physical observations, for the most part, obsolete. Employees are – or can be – locally or remotely monitored on a 24/7 basis.

Where is the line?

WHAT HAS yet to be determined, however, is if there is a line in the employee observation sandbox that is forbidden to cross. It is more or less understood that bathrooms, locker rooms and other facilities intended for hygienic use cannot be subject to any sort of surveillance. To what extent this is true for the performance of day-to-day operations and activities, though, is not as clear cut. Are employees, in other words, entitled to some privacy from the prying eyes of those in supervisory and management positions?

There are, it seems, no universally accepted regulations that control the extent to which telephone calls, Internet usage, or surreptitiously placed cameras or microphones can be used to monitor how an employee gets his or her work done. Nations and even localities are free to implement relevant policies, which range from a severely restrictive theocracy to chaotic liberalism.

Employers argue, convincingly, that intensive monitoring is required to maintain the health of the organization. Only through the collection and review of workplace-related data can flawed procedures be modified, system bottlenecks be avoided, and the procurement of goods and services be executed most efficiently.

They further point out that cameras are necessary for designing artificial intelligence (AI) routines, and microphones in conference rooms and factory floors contribute to a better understanding of how employees relate to both customers and themselves. But while this level of surveillance can by no means be likened to an Orwellian Big Brother, round-the-clock surveillance can be counterproductive; unlike what occurred in HWE, a severely restrictive digital yoke around an employee’s neck may in fact be an impediment to maximum performance and productivity.

From the time of the Industrial Revolution, employers have been distrustful of employees and have repeatedly found it necessary to implement systems devoted to monitoring and surveillance. Technological advances in recent years have provided cyber systems with the ability to be increasingly intrusive, which has remodeled or redefined the boundaries of acceptability.

Monitoring your work from home 

THE INCREASING number of employees who now, or continue to, work from home due to the pandemic certainly contributed to the growth of companies that market such systems. One such company, in fact, has reportedly developed a facial recognition tool that logs when employees are away from their computers. Where this can lead to requires little imagination. 

What makes this even more complicated is the tendency to, incorrectly, assume that ongoing monitoring is an unjust and unfair practice. Analysts readily point out that such surveillance is not necessarily unethical,; it does not automatically equate to mistrust. In addition to preventing participation in illegal activities and ensuring compliance with governing regulations in such areas as finance, medicine and maintenance of public utilities, both private and public organizations have found employee monitoring to be an essential tool for training and development. In other words, neither of the proverbial twins associated with workplace surveillance may be evil.

Finding that the middle road is more often than not the best one to travel, many of these organizations have found it expedient to allow a bit of leniency with regard to recreational screen time during working hours. At the same time, management, not unreasonably, has the right to expect the employees to act responsibly and not make it necessary to implement real-time tracking applications.

Few would find sneaking a peek at a movie review or checking last night’s scoreboard problematic. Spending an inordinate amount scrolling through Amazon looking for bargains or downloading music or videos, on the other hand, might be regarded as somewhat less acceptable. It will undoubtedly require a bit of trial and error, but arriving at a mutually beneficial balance should not be too difficult.

“Eureka” moments are, as we all know, far and few between, so it’s highly unlikely that we’ll be treated with an epiphany such as was encountered at HWE a century ago any time soon. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should remain stagnant and not try to come up with that better mousetrap, as elusive it might be. 

It does mean, though, that caution must be exercised in how the advanced tools that are currently available are used. For employers, well, oversight is one thing; workplace espionage is quite another. Employees, on the other hand, need to keep in mind that two and only two people in the world have a right to know how you spend your day: your spouse and the guy who signs your paycheck.   

The writer is a retired technical communicator currently assisting nonprofit organizations in the preparation of grant submissions and struggling to master the ins and outs of social media.