Monzo and the pitfalls of staff surveillance

Companies are paying too much attention to an elusive 'productivity' metric and not enough to the impact that monitoring has on staff
Cybercriminal Experts

Many workers are used to being monitored while performing their jobs. Restaurant staff might have to clock in and out, lawyers log their days in seven-minute increments so they know how much to bill clients, and agency workers keep track of where they spend their time to check if projects are profitable.

But slowly the practice has seeped into other industries. A recent survey by review site Digital.com found that 60% of companies with employees who work remotely are using monitoring software to track employee activity. That could be software that monitors web browsing or captures random screenshots; that blocks certain applications, content or websites; or that logs keystrokes.

Monzo is the latest firm to make headlines for doing just that. According to a report in The Telegraph, the fintech company’s ‘BizOps’ system checks customer service staff who work both remotely and in the office every five minutes to see if they are using their computers.

Staff are required to be working on their devices for 85% of the day and sent on a performance improvement programme if they repeatedly fail to hit the target. 

Monzo, in a statement sent to the newspaper, calls this “normal practice” for customer support operations, saying they are not tracking activity but “availability to work”. It does not, it says, monitor keystrokes or patterns.

Nevertheless, the news has put the focus once again on the role of activity tracking and whether it really offers the boost to productivity proponents suggest.

Why companies monitor staff activity

The rationale cited by most firms that track activity is that they want to monitor productivity and efficiency. Eight in 10 of those that took the Digital.com survey claim they simply want to better understand how employees are spending their time and 65% to ensure staff are working a full day.

The data would suggest they are right to do so. More than a quarter (27%) said they found employees spending at least five hours a day on non-work activities. A further 52% say employees spend between one and four hours not working –⁠ either away from their desks or browsing the internet.

And among those that use monitoring software, 81% claim they saw an increase in employee activity.

New research into ‘cyberslacking’ –⁠ the use of the internet by staff during the working day for personal and non-business reasons –⁠ found similar. The study, published in the journal Organisational Psychology Review, analysed data from one business unit of a US Fortune 100 business. It asked people to anonymously self-report their cyberslacking behaviour and then, six months later, measured supervisor-rated job performance. 

It found that cyberslacking “had a negative effect on job performance”. Not only that but there was a strong correlation between the perceived strength of the IT control policy and whether someone cyberslacked.

Why companies shouldn’t monitor staff activity

Given the data, there would appear to be a strong case for monitoring employee activity. It seems lots of employees are not working their full hours, instead spending up to half their day chatting to friends, scrolling through social media or browsing the internet.

It would also appear that, when staff know they are being monitored, they are more productive –⁠ they do more work. It’s hard to see the downside for an employer.

And yet this isn’t the way forward for the vast majority of employers or employees. Businesses might be suffering from “productivity paranoia”, as Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella has termed the trend, but in the same way that being present in an office does not denote productivity, nor does being sat in front of a laptop.

Checking staff are at their computers every five minutes or logging keystrokes is simply not a good way to track that ever elusive metric of productivity. People’s jobs might require sitting at a computer for long periods but staff also require time to think, to brainstorm, to talk with others, to be creative. None of this is trackable but it’s all intrinsic to getting the best work from staff. 

Fostering stress and resentment is also not a good way to treat staff you want to retain. A recent example in Canada of a firm winning a civil tribunal against a former employee after it found she had committed “time theft” and demanded C$2,700 (around £1,680) might sound like a boon for the company but imagine how everyone else felt! Would you want to work somewhere that was going to charge you every time you sent a text or read the news instead of working?

Resorting to surveilling staff also reflects badly on managers. Staff should be trusted to do the work they’ve been assigned and hit the deadlines they’ve been set. If a boss really thinks someone is not pulling their weight, it’s on them to motivate or set the worker a performance improvement plan. Resorting to tracking their every move on their laptop doesn’t solve the underlying problem of why they feel able to or want to spend hours of their working day doing anything but.

Monitoring staff might lead to a bump in productivity as measured by time at laptop. But longer term staff won’t stick around that and that is by far the bigger productivity issue.