The Future of Employee Monitoring

May 03, 2019

Contributor: Brian Kropp

Employers are increasingly using nontraditional employee monitoring tools, and employees are growing more comfortable with it if you tell them what youre doing and why.

Employees are used to being asked in employee engagement surveys how they feel about their job and workplace, but new technologies are increasingly being used to listen to employees in nontraditional ways. Employees themselves are getting more comfortable with such employee monitoring  — if you are transparent about why and how you’re doing it.

Last year, we surveyed 239 large corporations and found that more than 50% are using some type of nontraditional monitoring techniques. That’s up from just 30% in 2015, and I expect that by 2020, about 80% of companies will be monitoring employees, using a range of new tools and data sources.

When we talk about nontraditional monitoring, we’re looking at things like analyzing the text of emails and social-media messages, scrutinizing who’s meeting with whom, gathering biometric data and understanding how employees are utilizing their workspace.

Employee engagement surveys have limits

Historically, organizations have utilized formal, large-scale employee engagement surveys to gauge how employees feel about their jobs and workplace. While these surveys can surface helpful information, one major downside is speed, or lack thereof.

The traditional employee engagement survey is usually deployed annually, and it takes a considerable amount of resources – time and money – to analyze the data and generate insights. A typical cycle could see HR deploying a survey in December and receiving results in April. By the time a new program or policy is implemented based on the results, it’s September – a full 10 months after the survey was given.

Non-traditional data can also provide insights on more than just how employees feel about their job or physical space. For example, research shows that how things are said often matters more than the content of what is said. Two leaders can say the exact same thing and the tone – whomever sounds more confident – will determine which leader is perceived as being more effective.

We are also seeing new technologies that could fundamentally change how people work. Imagine your computer taking pictures of you and tracking the speed at which you type to determine your stress levels and make suggestions about when you should take a break. Or a table with lights on it that keep track of how much people are talking – or not – during a meeting to encourage those who are dominating the conversation to slow down and those who are not participating to speak up.

Employees want transparency

​Our research also shows that as employers continue to explore new tools for understanding their workforce, employees are increasingly comfortable with being monitored, especially if they understand how and why.

That’s not to say that workers are completely at ease with monitoring, but a recent Gartner survey found that in 2018, 30% of employees were comfortable with their employer monitoring their email, compared to only 10% of employees in 2015. When an employer explains the reasons for the monitoring, more than 50% of workers report being comfortable with it.

Monitoring requires governance

Even as employers and employees move down this path, you'll need to address certain challenges. Two major issues are:

  • Who's liable for decisions made based on an analysis of data collected?
  • Should companies act on the analysis of employee data?

​Ultimately, HR and business leaders will need to determine their organization’s point of view on these questions, and determine their position on what they are and aren’t comfortable doing. Given the current state of technology, there are a handful of things that companies should be doing:

  • Determine how comfortable your organization is (or isn’t) with using these technologies. Be sure to work with your general counsel, CEO and CIO to determine the level of experimentation you favor and how that will provide deeper insights into your employees.
  • Be transparent. Let employees know what you are doing. It’s difficult if not impossible to keep things like this confidential within an organization. Explain to employees what you are doing and why. Without this explanation, they may assume the worst and object.
  • Communicate the results, decisions and benefits to employees. When employees start to see that this data is being used to create a healthier and better employee experience, they will be more accepting of these approaches.

There’s no doubt that mistakes will be made as companies and employees proceed down this path, but employers can learn a lot from consumer marketing about the need to collect, store and use data responsibly.

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