Why Employee Surveillance Backfires — Careers Done Write

Last week, Wells Fargo fired several staff members after claiming they were faking keyboard activity to make it appear like they were working when they were not. The bank said that its staff had either been fired or resigned “after review of allegations involving simulation of keyboard activity creating impression of active work,” according to the BBC. 

A number of large companies have been using tools to monitor employees after the expansion of remote work during the pandemic. These tools can monitor keystrokes and eye movements, take screenshots, and record the websites used.

Technology has also been developed to evade such surveillance tools, including so-called “mouse jigglers,” which make computers appear active when workers are actually doing something else. Amazon, which sells them for under $10, has said thousands have been sold in the last month. This has led micromanagers and idle leaders to intensify their surveillance efforts. 

Here is why what Wells Fargo management decided to do is just dumb: time spent on tasks does not equate to productivity. It is likely that the WF employees who were using mouse jigglers were completing their work in an efficient manner. If they were able to complete the work in, say, 5 hours instead of 8, what was the problem? Salaried employees are paid for results, not for time worked. In fact, the entire idea of the 8-hour workday is a relic of the manufacturing age. 

In 2021, leadership of computer giant Dell announced that they were moving to a remote-first culture. Employees rejoiced. Many moved to places with lower living costs, better access to amenities, or were closer to family. In April of this year, leadership told its remote workers to return to the office or else. One of the threats management made to encourage people to return to the office was this edict: Come back to the office, or you will NEVER qualify for a promotion again. As you can imagine, this did not go over well. Half of all remote employees snubbed management and elected to stay home. Here is why Dell’s decision was dumb: If your people are delivering on their goals, it does not matter where they are. Plus, most people do not get promoted. Most people change jobs and companies to get promoted and gain more experience. 

Data from research suggests that surveilling employees often backfires. One study found that US employees under surveillance took more unapproved breaks, intentionally worked more slowly, and stole more office equipment than their un-monitored peers. This is completely predictable and unsurprising. 

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