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Employee Privacy in the Workplace
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Employee Privacy in the Workplace

March 20, 2019
employee privacy

It’s no secret that technology can cause distractions at work. The temptation to respond to texts or peruse Facebook for a brain break is ever present. In fact, one Udemy survey found that 78 percent of millennial respondents admitted to using technology for personal activities during work. Employers are taking notice, and many are beginning to use technology to track these distractions. There have been reports of big companies doing everything from scouring browser history to using video surveillance to punish gum chewing and even using GPS tracking even once employees leave the office. One study by AMA found that 80% of the 1,627 major corporations covered monitor an employee’s actions on email, phone or the internet. While tracking an employee’s every move can be a tempting way to increase productivity, new evidence shows that decreasing employee privacy in the workplace may just do the opposite.

From a management perspective, in a perfect world, tracking employees would allow you to see who was given too much work, who has nothing to do, and who is surfing Pinterest all day. But you have to remember that these are people, not robots, and having their every move tracked means something. Imagine learning that your boss’s boss was checking your browser history at the end of the day to see how many times you strayed from your work, or that their boss was watching the cameras to see who jumped up and left at exactly 6 o’clock. It doesn’t exactly convey the image of a company that trusts its employees. Mitigating privacy in the workplace can be a slippery slope, one that’s discouraging and condescending, reminiscent of the proctors that sat there and watched you during the SAT. It tells employees ‘we don’t trust you, we’re watching you, and we’ll know when you mess up.” Workplace distraction statistics tell us that 43 percent of people turn off their phone during work to cut down on distraction. These are adults we’re talking about, who are capable of policing themselves. When you start doing it for them, it sends the wrong message.

One sociologist told the Atlantic that when employees are surveilled, it creates a cycle in which they try to evade surveillance and then companies become compelled to increase surveillance. One could reasonably assume that working in an environment that feels more like a prison would kill morale, and low morale means low productivity. Think about it: doing a great job, impressing a boss, getting a promotion, or performing how you’re supposed to because the guys behind the cameras are watching?

Besides killing intrinsic motivation, employee tracking can cause stress. Feeling like you’re being watched, like you’re just another number to be analyzed and tool whose productivity should be maximized can inspire employees to start looking elsewhere for work. And if you thought social media breaks were causing you money, just wait until your turnover rates increase. Hiring and training employees come at an enormous cost, so it may be worth it to let employees roam free if it means they’ll stay.

Surveilling employees forces them to act in a way they think looks good, which isn’t always a good thing. From innovation labs to remote positions with more flexible hours, employers all over the world are learning that maximized productivity doesn’t always occur in the office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.. Many people work best in other situations. But by tracking employees’ every move, you’re encouraging them to work how they think you want them to work, which can actually kill their productivity.

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There is a lot of research that shows that taking breaks actually boosts productivity in the long run. Taking a short break can renew your motivation, spur creativity, and improve memory. Working for too long without one can lead to simplistic decision making, in which you choose the easiest option instead of the right one, and cause undue stress and fatigue. Sure surfing Facebook all day isn’t doing any good, but that five minute trip to the kitchen or clicking away from the spreadsheet to read an article can refresh the brain and help employees do better work when they return to it. Staples conducted a survey in which 85 percent of people said that taking a break would make them more productive. However, most don’t because of guilt. When you’re being tracked, the likelihood of being glued to your desk until you burnout only increases. Half of the people surveyed by Udemy said that trying something new at work would make them more engaged. Do you know what kills the odds of them trying new things? Surveillance.

Additionally, higher-ups may use the data they collect to implement new policies based on what makes most people productive. But what works for most won’t work for all. A lot of employees may be more productive coming in a half hour early and leaving a half hour early. But others would be half asleep at their desks. Many may work best in absolute silence, but others may need to think out loud and collaborate with others to do their best work. Minimizing distractions at the workplace is important for sure, but what qualifies as a distraction is different for everyone.

So how can you encourage your employees to be productive without infringing on their workplace privacy? Use tools when necessary, but put people before data. Remember that morale can’t be measured, and turnover is more expensive than a few unproductive breaks each day. In fact, encourage employees to take breaks when they need them, and find ways to work that they find to be most productive for them. When it comes to the physical layout of your office, it’s important to have a mix of private and collaborative spaces. Research shows that completely open floor plans can be loud, distracting, and actually cause less collaboration. Instead, designate spaces for hyper-focused, quiet individual work, and others for team meetings, discussion, and collaboration.

Privacy is a huge topic of concern, and for good reason. With all of the technology available at an employer’s fingertips, it can be tempting to measure and track every keystroke and idle minute. But there is such a thing as over-analyzing when it comes to employee productivity. If you can strike the right balance between finding out how employees work best and trusting that they are capable of working effectively on their own, you’re on the right path.


Written by:

Kait Hobson
Workplace Innovation
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