EY should be wary of joining the cat-and-mouse game of employee monitoring

Tracking badge swipes and rotations of a turnstile might seem like a sensible way for bosses to tell who’s coming into the office, but there are plenty of loopholes that staff can exploit and it risks engendering mistrust

Ey Employee Badge Monitoring Office

Back in 2017, a member of the House of Lords was called out for pulling up to the peers’ entrance at the Palace of Westminster, dashing out of their taxi, registering their attendance for the day, and then immediately retuning to the cab, which still had its engine running.

This might seem strange, but the peer’s appearance was all in the name of self-service. Members of the House of Lords are able to claim a flat rate attendance allowance of £342. Although it’s expected that those who turn up will partake in any voting or debates that are happening that day, all that is required to receive the payment is to show up.

The story highlights the importance of measuring the right thing – if literally registering your presence is all that’s required to get a reward, where’s the incentive to do more? It’s a question that EY would be wise to reflect on. Earlier this week, news emerged that the accountancy firm has started monitoring its UK employees’ office attendance using anonymous turnstile data.

Senior managers are also being shown swipe card entry data amid concerns that some workers are ignoring the company’s request for people to come into the office at least two days a week. One EY manager estimates that more than half of some teams are currently flouting hybrid-working rules.

EY is not alone in keeping track of office attendance. The law firm Clifford Chance is also said to be monitoring the number of days its lawyers are in the office, while TikTok is using an app-based tool called MyRTO to track its employees’ whereabouts.

Loopholes in employee-monitoring tools

While this trend of monitoring attendance is cropping up in more UK workplaces, it is most prevalent in the US. The commercial real estate firm CBRE estimates that 57% of US companies that have asked staff to return to the office are tracking attendance and, of those, 41% are monitoring badge swipes, sensors and VPN logins.

Increasingly, employees and employers are involved in a game of workplace attendance cat-and-mouse. As soon as employers find new ways to track staff, employees are developing devious new strategies to beat their badge-tracking overlords. On the anonymous employee-networking app Blind, tech workers have contemplated paying others to tap their badge in for them twice a week. Meanwhile 18 Amazon workers polled on the app admitted to swiping their partner’s badge on their way in, so their other half could enjoy a day working from home. 

Employees are already developing devious new strategies to beat their badge-tracking overlords

By far the most common workaround is ‘coffee badging’, a term used to refer to people who register their attendance in the office, chat to a few people in the kitchen while they drink a cup of coffee, and then head home. More than half (58%) of the 2,000 people surveyed in by video conferencing firm Owl Labs for its State of Hybrid Work report confessed to doing just this.

Looking beyond attendance

Businesses do face a real problem in convincing people to return to the office and it’s true that some employees are opting to ignore return-to-office mandates. However, the tactics to address this closely resemble the House of Lords’ attendance allowances. If all you’re measuring is the ability of someone to show up then people will inevitably find a way to game the system.

Monitoring employee attendance does little more than confirm that someone has shown up to the office and if that’s all employers are concerned about, then tracking card swipes or rotations of a turnstile are great ways to measure it. 

But this was not the reason many gave for office recalls. Return-to-office mandates were introduced with the intention of improving collaboration, increasing productivity and revitalising company culture. Companies should be measuring these outputs, alongside anonymised data on how and where people are working, to give them insight into the impact it has on performance. A study by researchers at the Katz Graduate School of Business, University of Pittsburgh, found return-to-office mandates hadn’t led to an uptick in company performance broadly, but this will vary across business.

Plus, strict enforcement of office attendance is more likely to have the opposite effect. Companies have seen employee satisfaction metrics go down and staff, particularly among demographics where flexibility is key, leave. EY and others would do well to remember that employee output is the real determinant of productivity, not their commitment to step through the office doors twice a week.