27 September 2023

When your best ideas can get you fired

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Cayla Dengate* considers the increasing use of employee surveillance software and why it often can’t measure the things that really matter.

There’s no better feeling than coming up with a solution that will fix a major headache at work.

Chances are, you didn’t come up with your last great idea while midway through an email, or during a group Zoom call.

Futurist, Anders Sörman-Nilsson says it’s more likely you were struck by inspiration in the middle of the night, or while walking in nature, or taking a bath, or surfing.

For companies that use employee surveillance software, this kind of deep thinking is not recorded.

In fact, if a staffer was out taking a walk, it may well be observed they were inactive, and lead to disciplinary action.

Digital surveillance entered the mainstream when the pandemic created a remote workforce.

From tracking keystrokes to counting emails and, in extreme cases, asking employees to work with a webcam watching, managers began relying on data to monitor workers who were no longer sitting in the office nearby.

Sörman-Nilsson, who writes about sustainable futures and emerging trends, says the data isn’t always the goldmine bosses imagine it is.

“It comes back to this old Peter Drucker notion of ‘what can be measured can be managed and improved’,” he says.

“It all sounds very 1984 Big Brother when we are being glued to screens and our keystrokes are being counted and the amount of phone calls we make every day is being surveilled.

“A lot of organisations have it wrong in terms of what’s actually being measured.

“Yes, it’s important to measure some level of activity, but some things that can be counted don’t actually count — and some things that really count in terms of productivity and output cannot be counted.”

Executive coach, Colin Yeoman agrees: “There are ways to measure activity without a surveillance mindset,” he says.

“Do you want 1,000 low-quality calls or 10 highly-engaged calls that will provide you with greater insights on what you are trying to achieve?”

Sörman-Nilsson says it’s not as straightforward as abandoning the software because it’s imperfect.

On the one hand, he likens surveillance data to live soccer statistics that can make clever predictions about possible goals scored based on ball possession.

“However, I’ve watched enough soccer games to know that often times, those predictions don’t actually stack up,” he says.

He says companies and workers need to repair the culture of ‘zero trust’ and speak openly about digital surveillance — but is it time to throw out the software altogether?

He can’t imagine managers turning down the data, and instead predicts workers will push for freedom in a “counter trend of people wanting to work off-grid when they know no one is watching over their shoulder”.

He likens ‘off-grid days’ to leadership retreats and strategy off-sites where employees can choose to turn off surveillance tracking software “in a deliberate and intimately designed way”.

Director of the Aesthetics Embassy, Marietta Bloomfield says this backlash against surveillance could go further, especially in light of recent data leaks and cyber-security concerns.

“Where is the data being stored? What has been recorded? What times are they recorded?” she asks.

“Who is employed to monitor this data? Who is protecting an employee’s rights in this instance? Is the employee aware of all of this?

“Wise employers will stop treating their employees like robots, and start considering the legal ramifications of surveillance, work health and safety and breach of privacy.”

What level of surveillance do you feel comfortable with? Would you change your behaviour depending on whether you knew you were being monitored or not?

*Cayla Dengate is a senior news editor at LinkedIn. Based in Sydney, she advises job seekers on how to get hired. She can be contacted at linkedin.com/in/cayladengate.

This article first appeared at LinkedIn.

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