Wednesday, 1 September 2021

Bring on the techno-panopticon

Are we just that cool now with being surveilled at work? Demand for employee monitoring software saw a significant uptick at the start of the pandemic. Representatives of workforce analytics software provider ActivTrak told Vice last year that the company had seen a threefold increase in license requests in March 2020, while workforce management platform Hubstaff said it saw a 72% increase in unique visits to its site during the same period.The global market for employee monitoring solutions is predicted to increase by 84% to USD 1.3 bn by 2027, according to a study, reported on by In The Black. Some of the biggest software solutions currently being rolled out include those from Controlio, FairTrak, InterGuard and StaffCop (what a name…).

…So much so, that employees are opting for tracking by algorithms as opposed to humans: A new study by researchers at the University of Virginia and the University of Southern California found that workers are more likely to accept or encourage tracking if it is conducted and analyzed by machines. But when you bring humans into the work monitoring process, employees are a lot less keen. So how come we trust tech more than our fellow employees?

Ironically, algorithms are perceived as less biased: The researchers set up five experiments that gauged participants’ reactions to various aspects of having their work activity tracked and analyzed, with the results showing an overwhelming preference for technology-based analysis over human judgment, which can be biased or judgemental. AI tracking gives employees a greater sense of autonomy, the study found, but the kind of software utilized can make all the difference.

Technology-aided monitoring can help boost productivity: Some types of technology can notify employees of improvements in their performance, while providing insights on their peak productivity hours, and scheduling breaks during the times they are less focused. This kind of tech can go so far as to make employees excited to follow the software’s recommendations, explains Roshni Raveendhran, University of Virginia professor and one of the authors of the study, to the Wall Street Journal.

But other tech is less helpful: So-called “tattleware” softwares can track hours worked and applications used, with some even secretly recording keystrokes and capturing screen images at random, according to Neo.Life. Companies such as PwC and Teleperformance have even mandated that their employee webcams stay on, and have given IT staff license to remotely activate cameras on remote worker’s devices at any time. Other than the inevitable privacy concerns, the decision was found to have a demoralizing effect on staff.

Employee monitoring can chip away at a positive workplace culture: Putting in place monitoring tools sends the message to employees that they are not trusted, Katie Bedborough, CFO of VoCoVo told Financial Management. Productivity tracking software is “fundamentally at odds” with a culture of innovation that allows employees the freedom to work in their own way in order to produce the best results.

Are we heading towards a techno-panopticon? 18th century English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s disciplinary concept of the panopticon — a circular prison where cells are monitored by a central guard tower that overlooks them all — has found parallels in the misuse of contemporary tech, from CCTV to smartphone data collection. The idea is that though it is impossible for a single prison guard to monitor all cells at once, the fact that prisoners know they could be watched at any moment will lead them to behave as if they are, and have them self-policing their behaviour. When employees consent to workplace monitoring by software, are they hastening the arrival of a future in which a techno-panopticon becomes our new normal?

Proponents say feedback, rather than control, is the key to successful employee monitoring. Programs that provide employees with insights into performance and give workers direct access to their data can help improve workflow and feel empowered to make informed decisions. In best case scenarios, managers can also use the data to identify if employees are getting stuck on certain tasks, and get a bigger picture perspective on how to make workers’ lives easier. The key objective should be to improve office productivity, as opposed to simply spying on employees.

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