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Monitoring the workforce: to spy or not to spy?


PC Pro asked the HR Society for its views on workforce monitoring.  The background is that there is a growth in electronic workforce surveillance.  For instance, the Daily Telegraph installed OccupEye under-desk person monitor.  It detects when staff members are sitting at their desks and how long they are away, by using heat and motion sensors.  This information can be used to inform decisions about the scope for hot desking and which office locations are the most popular.  
Staff were not told about this surveillance in advance.  The staff themselves discovered the devices and some thought it would be used to identify people who were away from their desks for excessively long periods.   Newspaper redundancies fuelled a sense of insecurity.   The Daily Telegraph management withdrew the devices after saying that they were being used to monitor office utilisation.

The HR Society response

There will be times when organisations monitor a range of activities undertaken by staff.  The intent is usually positive, and can include ensuring that staffing levels are adequate and that staff work in safe and healthy environments. Problems occur when staff are not involved in discussions and are not informed that monitoring is taking place.
Rumours can result which can be more extreme than the action management intend to undertake.  This can worsen staff morale, adversely affecting staff performance and customer satisfaction.   This contrasts with organisations that actively engage managers and staff at all levels in monitoring performance.
Undercover surveillance arising from concerns about illegal or dangerous activities taking place are extremely rare and should be used with caution by employers.
There are lots of good examples of where employers have used monitoring to drive improvements in performance and service levels.  A large hospital provides key performance indicators by department covering vacancies, sickness and absence, turnover, bank and agency spend, mandatory training and performance development reviews.   This highly detailed information is easy to read as traffic lights are used to summarise each indicator.  This enables the hospital to focus on any problem areas.  If performance is declining analysis can be undertaken and support offered at an early stage.
In one case, a new surgeon began undertaking leading edge surgery on patients who required high levels of care.  This increased the nursing workload substantially, leading to higher sickness and turnover.  When this was identified, more nurses were employed.
Organisations vary to the extent they engage and empower staff.  At one extreme organisations can be very prescriptive how work should be done.  The famous exponent was Frank Winslow Taylor who stated in 1911:
It is only through enforced standardization of methods, enforced adoption of the best implements and working conditions, and enforced cooperation that this faster work can be assured. And the duty of enforcing the adoption of standards and enforcing this cooperation rests with management alone.
This led to time and motion studies whereby the time staff took to undertake a task was recorded by observers with stopwatches.
At the other end of the spectrum is Total Quality Management, made famous by Toyota,   This emphases that staff take ownership for the quality of their work and monitor their own performance, rather than relying on supervision and quality checkers.  The aim is to drive out fear, so that everyone works effectively for the company.
Or Ricardo Semler who turned his family's business, the aging Semco Corporation of Brazil, into the most revolutionary business success story of our time. By eliminating unneeded layers of management and allowing employees unprecedented democracy in the workplace, he created a company that challenged the old ways and blazed a path to success in an uncertain economy.
The HR Society is in favour of workforce monitoring that fully involves staff and treats them as part of the solution rather than as part of the problem.

Authors: George Blair, Chair, HR Society and Angela O’Connor, President, HR Society

 1 Taylor, Principles of Scientific Management, cited by Montgomery 1989:229, italics with Taylor

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