Are you communicating, or spying on your employees?

More and more employers are thinking about inviting Big Brother into the workplace as well as into employee’s homes, according to researchers from the University of Toronto and Queen’s University. With the emergence of new monitoring technology, employers are now able to watch staff working (or not working) at their home offices.

It’s already being used in some big corporations like Nynex and Xerox in the United States and the technology could be making its way across the border.

“It (the technology) wasn’t designed for performance monitoring,” said David Zweig, co-author of the study Where is the line between benign and invasive? An examination of psychological barriers to the acceptance of awareness monitoring systems.

“It’s meant to help employees collaborate and communicate more effectively across geographical locations. The idea is noble but it raises some pretty critical issues surrounding privacy and fairness.”

In fact, the majority of people surveyed for the report were strongly opposed to the concept. Several stated they would not work for a company that chose to use this monitoring technology.

“I feel like some prisoners when (prison guards) bracelet them so they know where they’s the whole idea of a loss of privacy in all of our lives. We have radar on the road and now we have radar at work,” said one participant.

Zweig, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, and co-author Jane Webster from Queen’s University polled 1,200 university students and alumni working in various Canadian companies about their perceptions of awareness monitoring systems. Respondents said they felt the technology was intrusive even if employers implemented privacy safeguards such as blurred images, control over who would view the images and infrequent image capture.

There are boundaries and this technology crosses the line of how much information we’re willing to share with our colleagues, Zweig said. Many of those surveyed said they wouldn’t feel in control of their work schedule and could see some bosses using the device as a proxy for performance.

“I would feel spied on, if someone is watching you every 10 minutes,” said one respondent.

Another participant said, “You’re conscious of yourself all of a sudden and I think that’s the last thing you need.”

Especially for those who telework, most surveyors said they would be concerned about their appearance on video. It would force them to dress up just to work from home.

“Someone could be swayed by the image they see and it has nothing to do with how a person performs on the job. A bad hair day may colour our perceptions of other people and it has nothing to do with performance,” Zweig said.

It may actually hinder performance.

One participant told the researchers that, “The time I don’t want to be interrupted is when I am doing research at my terminal. I’d rather be interrupted if I’m talking to a colleague. The assumption here is that if you are sitting at your terminal it’s time to be interrupted, ...that may be the time you are trying to do some deep thinking; you have intentionally turned everything off so you can do that.”

Even though there was an overwhelming negative response to this concept, Zweig said electronic monitoring in the workplace is not going away.

“We’re talking about the next generation of monitoring technology here, so even if this one doesn’t succeed, there will be others.”

That’s why it’s important for HR people to step in and act as gatekeepers, he said. Ask the tough questions about these technologies. Ask the experts if the technology has been implemented at other workplaces and how it’s working there. Ask how the technology addresses privacy and fairness issues and how it can enhance performance.

“HR is on the front line, they have to define the boundaries for employees.”

Or workers can take matters into their own hands. One survey respondent, who had a monitoring system in place at work, said after getting tired of being watched, “I just turned it off so Big Brother couldn’t see me.”

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