Why Bosses Should Snoop On Employees Less

Having a monitored desk could be worse than having no desk at all.

It has never been easier for your boss to spy on you at work.

But doing so may be a mistake. While some companies justify employee monitoring as an attempt to make things run more smoothly, it can actually hurt morale and have a ripple effect on the business' overall performance.

That downside was evident from the outrage at the London-based Daily Telegraph, where employees discovered Monday that the company had installed heat-sensing monitors under their desks, BuzzFeed reported

Many Telegraph employees found out about the monitors from the BuzzFeed article or Twitter and felt the company violated their privacy, one Telegraph employee told The Huffington Post. Some workers had to Google the monitors' brand name to figure out what they were, BuzzFeed reported.

The backlash was so violent, the company removed the desk monitors before the end of the day. 

Monitoring is a particularly sensitive issue for journalists, who have seen their industry transform over the last decade from one that values going out, knowing people and finding scoops to one that values pushing out as much content as possible. Thus, desk monitoring is an implicit attempt to devalue shoe-leather reporting in favor of mind-numbing aggregation. At the Telegraph, it also appeared to shake employees' trust in management.

But that type of workplace monitoring doesn't even work, studies suggest.

While monitoring technology has improved recently, basic video surveillance has been around for decades (and the fear of constant surveillance has been around for centuries). And whether or not it works depends on what employees are doing.

A 2013 study found that restaurants that used surveillance in their cash register software saw much lower rates of theft, as Bloomberg Businessweek reported.

But increasing surveillance to boost productivity is much different from increasing surveillance to prevent theft, and it's unclear if it does much beyond stressing employees out. 

Workplace stress can cost companies a few thousand dollars per worker every year through a combination in absenteeism and disability claims, multiple studies have found -- and that doesn't even cover any declines in productivity. And it's pretty clear employees find surveillance stressful. "Employees who had their performance electronically monitored perceived their working conditions as more stressful, and reported higher levels of job boredom, psychological tension, anxiety, depression, anger, health complaints and fatigue," a 1992 study found. 

Another study found that electronic monitoring improved the performance of "high ability workers," but hindered the performance of "low ability workers." Essentially, if you are already good at your job, being monitored at work makes you work faster. But if you are still learning your job, being monitored makes you worse. Regardless of skill level, the study found that monitoring increases stress to a high degree -- even more than the researchers expected -- and that being individually monitored (like with an individual desk heat sensor) stressed workers out even more than if they were being monitored as a group.

Some Telegraph employees told HuffPost Monday they worried their desk data could be used against them in performance evaluations.  

Ironically, other recent business moves suggest it's not unreasonable to take the Telegraph management's reason for the monitors at face value. Telegraph brass said it was an attempt to see how much desks are actually used for "environmental impact." Given the tenuous financial stability of most journalism outlets these days, it's quite possible the company just wants to downsize or get rid of some unused desks.

It's trendy in the business world these days to get rid of assigned seating (it's called "hot desking") and/or move to an open office plan in order to cut costs on office space. Citigroup downsized its allocated office space per employee in December, forcing even investment bankers into an open office plan. The accounting and consultancy giant Deloitte has a futuristic building in Amsterdam that has no assigned seating. According to Bloomberg, 1,000 desks accommodate 2,500 employees, because not every employee comes to the office every day.

Journalists may have freaked out on Monday over desk monitors, but their bosses already have access to plenty of analytics data about how many stories they write, how well those stories perform, what sites the people reading their stories come from and even how long readers stay on the page. Every journalist is under a daily microscope already, and data about how one uses his desk is unlikely to be a tipping point performance metric.

But that journalist could still come into the office one day to find she doesn't have a desk anymore.

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