Introducing workplace monitoring software? Your employees will try to beat the system

Gartner predicts that one in 10 employees will try to find ways of tricking surveillance technologies introduced to the workplace.

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More businesses are turning to remote monitoring tools to make up for the loss of direct observation.

Image: iStock/ Borislav

Employers who install remote monitoring technology to keep tabs on productivity can expect workers to find ways to game the system.

Analyst firm Gartner reckons that, over the next two years, at least one in 10 employees will try to find ways of tricking the surveillance technologies used to monitor worker behavior and productivity in the workplace.

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It comes as more businesses turn to remote monitoring tools as a means of making up for the loss of direct observation they have on employees since they started working from home.

Distrustful or otherwise resentful employees may retaliate by trying to find gaps where metrics don't capture activity, or where accountability is unclear, says Gartner. Similarly, workers may try to manipulate monitoring software by generating false or confusing data.

The firm says businesses should carefully consider whether surveillance tools are necessary before installing them and that organizations "will increasingly face workers who seek to evade and overwhelm them" if employees feel that their privacy is being invaded.

Gartner analyst Whit Andrews told TechRepublic that distrust in monitoring technologies is high among workers who feel that employers are overstepping the mark and violating the "social contract" between employer and employee.

"People will take work in part because they think it allows them the freedom to do it the way they think it's best done – that makes perfect sense," said Andrews.

"When you introduce new monitoring or surveillance models, those workers feel like that social contract has been violated."

This feeling is heightened when employees are working from their own homes, which Andrews said made the justification for monitoring "a little bit harder to defend".

He added: "Workers believe they know best about how to do their jobs, and what they're worth. One of the challenges we're seeing emerge is that the worker who sought certain kinds of labor, and sought them because of the independence and autonomy that they thought it promised them."

There are a variety of security, productivity and ethical questions that loom over the use of workplace monitoring technologies, which become more urgent as businesses move forward with their remote-working ambitions.

According to a study by the UK's Trades Union Congress (TUC) in November 2020, one in seven employees report that their workplace had introduced monitoring and surveillance since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, a survey by Skillcast and YouGov in December found that as many as one in five businesses are using technology to monitor workers' online activity, or had plans to do so in the future. 

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Andrews warned that businesses should not take the decision to introduce monitoring tools lightly – though acknowledged that the technology had its place in certain situations.

"The ability to monitor workers who are employing pieces of equipment that represent safety risks to people other than themselves is quite defensible. If you're operating a piece of equipment that could bring harm to somebody, especially somebody who's not in your organization... then I understand why people think that those people need to be monitored," he said.

"The key questions is: was it part of the social contract, does it need to be part of the social contract, and I think the most important thing is, how will monitoring be used?"

Exposing individual-level metrics, as was the case with Microsoft's contentious productivity score feature for Microsoft 356, also poses an ethical dilemma. Andrews said organizations should "think long and hard" about what they're intending to achieve, particularly if it involves exposing data to managers that claims to reflect individual performance.

"One thing I always point out is, what is it you're hoping to discover? If you're hoping to discover one in 10,000 ineffective workers, is that really worth the effort?" he said.

"If you're hoping to discover a challenge that you've created for half your workers, that's absolutely worth that investment."

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