Technology and the seeds of mistrust at work

Dr Janina Steinmetz explains why using technology to monitor employees at work can be counterproductive

Working from home during the pandemic has led to new ways of life: a new means of social gathering, new means of entertainment and, for many, a new way of working.

An important aspect of an organisation’s ability to function remotely is the trust between employer and employee to work effectively during ‘office’ hours, without the physical presence of a manager to keep check on progress.

To ensure productivity, some companies have implemented technology to keep tabs on their workers by implementing mandatory screen-sharing, monitoring web pages visited and clicks-per-minute, and even activating webcams throughout the day.

According to Dr Janina Steinmetz, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the Business School (formerly Cass), this intensive scrutiny of employees is of no overall benefit to company morale or productivity.

“Employers often monitor their staff because they are worried about employees slacking, and monitoring seems like an easy strategy to prevent this,” Dr Steinmetz said.

“Other strategies to prevent slacking require more attention and planning from management, such as setting appropriate goals with an employee and monitoring goal progress.

“Whereas some employees undoubtedly slack and constant review can reduce this, monitoring also decreases trust between employers and employees. If a culture of distrust emerges because of unexpected or overreaching monitoring, employees might lose motivation because they feel alienated from their employer.”

The technology available to managers during the pandemic may increase temptation to constantly monitor employee activity, especially as they are unable to check in more casually.

“Checking in on an employee by stopping by their desk in a normal working environment can have its advantages because they may have a question or enjoy a quick chat,” Dr Steinmetz continued.

“However, using monitoring technology has virtually no benefit for the employee and only serves the employer’s control needs. Moreover, employee monitoring can have unexpected psychological consequences that go beyond reduced trust in management.

“Research shows that people not only behave differently when monitored – such as staying away from social media when the boss is in the office or when zoom is running – but they also think differently about their work when monitored.

“For instance, studies have shown that people believe they made more mistakes in a test when closely monitored. This occurs because people automatically look at their work from the perspective of the observer when being monitored, and add this to their own perspective. This can often magnify the mistake and make it seem more severe.

“Such effects are not intended by an employer, but could hinder employee learning and confidence.

“Instead of monitoring employees in such a way, employers should set goals for their workers and check in with them regularly to see how they are doing pursuing such goals.”

All quotes can be attributed to Dr Janina Steinmetz, Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the Business School (formerly Cass).

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