A Rutgers organizational psychologist explains ramifications of putting spy software in place

With millions of employees working remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic, managers—likely new to virtual management—are scrambling to find the best ways to oversee them online. Computer performance monitoring may interest those looking for “an extra set of eyes,” but workplace surveillance is not that simple, according to John Aiello, an expert in organizational psychology at Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences.

“While spy software may relieve the manager’s anxieties, organizations will see an increase in stress on employees and it could decrease productivity,” said Aiello, who has researched the electronic monitoring of workers over the last three decades. He has worked with corporations such as AT&T, State Farm Insurance, Aventis Pharmaceuticals, Bell Communications Research, Dell Computer Corporation and IBM among others.

The psychologist explains why electronic workplace surveillance should be carefully considered.

How does monitoring software affect productivity?

Aside from employees feeling like “Big Brother” is watching, stress levels and trust are severely affected. In virtually every study we implemented, employees felt greater stress in an electronic monitored environment.

In addition, productivity goes down when an employee is working on a task that is the least bit difficult. During routine tasks, the possibility of surveillance is typically inconsequential. Employees tend to do well during these tasks and have extra “mental bandwidth” to deal with other things happening around them. Employers may even see some performance increases with simple tasks.

The difficulty is that most people do not perform tasks that are “so easy” they have extra bandwidth available. When employees are worried about surveillance, it takes away from their concentration. With a complex task, like problem-solving, they will demonstrate lower levels of performance. It is concerning for the organization because of lost productivity, and frustrating for the individual because they, without that extra pressure, probably would have done better. 

How does implementing this surveillance affect managers?

The dilemma many managers are facing now is they think this might be the only way to “keep an eye” on employees. But it’s worth noting that managers will be expected to spend more time monitoring the activities of their employees on top of their other responsibilities. The worker will also anticipate the manager will provide more feedback than normal about what they are doing. 

It can create a situation where managers are more stressed because their time is taken away, and employees are more stressed because they are undergoing this surveillance.

Can electronic monitoring be used for “the greater good?”

In the right way, electronic surveillance can be used as a coaching tool to provide guidance. Even more, in the case of good management, it is used to reward people doing well. It gives managers a chance to reinforce what their employees are doing. We know from research that if you provide positive reinforcement, you are more likely to see that positive behavior in the future. 

In past research, we examined the difference between having the employees participate in discussions of how the monitoring was going to be used compared to a control group where they had no say. When given voice about the monitoring process, stress levels were considerably lower. It goes without saying that giving your employees a voice makes a difference.

If employers are thinking about implementing this surveillance, what might be done first?

We understand managers need to make sure employees are continuing to work hard. One of the key things a good manager does is communication—and lots of it. Most managers think they are communicating enough, but in reality, it is insufficient. Managers must understand that they need to initiate contact when managing remotely, especially during a challenging situation like we are in now. Don’t just wait for questions to come your way. Take the initiative and reach out to your employees.

So, think about how often you are communicating with your employees, how you are doing it and whether that can be adjusted before any sort of workplace surveillance enters the conversation. If necessary, or if it is for a specific purpose, ensure your employees are aware of the software, and avoid any “gotcha” moments that will prompt negative feelings. If you are not careful or thinking strategically about how you will use it, you may lose your best employees.