Big Brother at the Workplace

Surveilling employees at the workplace is widespread. What you need to know about it.

As a high school student, more than 40 years ago, I packaged soup vegetables on an assembly line. During the break, the plant manager calculated for me how many more boxes he thought I should have filled. He had been watching me the whole time – my first and, as far as I know, only experience with surveillance at the workplace.

Digitization Boosts Surveillance

What had to be done by hand back then can now be done more conveniently and elegantly with technical aids thanks to digitization. Video cameras, microphones, GPS systems and, increasingly, spy software on business PCs or cell phones are being used. But telephone systems with tapping and recording functions, photocopiers with document storage or even Microsoft's Office program also enable surveillance.

According to market researcher Gartner, in 2018 more than half of large companies with annual revenues of more than $750 million used "non-traditional" methods to monitor their employees. In early 2020, just over 16 percent of employers reported using monitoring techniques more frequently than before. These include tracking work computer usage and monitoring emails and internal chat programs. According to Gartner, their use increased to 26 percent in the 2020 Covid year. The increase probably has to do with the fact that many bosses wanted to know more precisely what their employees were doing in the home office.

Monitoring for Better Performance

Amazon is a good example of why companies monitor their employees. The scanners that employees in Amazon warehouses need to do their work log each minute of "time off task" (unproductivity). Employees who have a lot of it not only have to justify themselves, they also face consequences up to and including dismissal.

Something similar is apparently being used at banks in London – supplied by consulting company PwC. Facial recognition software monitors bankers via computer camera and asks for written justification in the event of a screen absence. "The technology is for financial institutions to be able to meet strict compliance rules, even for home office employees," George Stylianides of PwC in London told Financial News. Just for that? It's perfect for monitoring, after all.

In Amazon's case, there is evidence that surveillance data has been used to drive employees to perform better. The companies hope this will increase productivity and profits. For many, this is the main reason to monitor employees.

Behavior of Employees Must not Be Monitored

Was the boss allowed to monitor me at the vegetable place at all? Would Amazon also be allowed to record leisure time in Switzerland? The Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner (FDPIC) knows the answer: The permissible monitoring of employees is limited by the protection of personality and data protection law, as well as by mandatory provisions of labor law, it says on its website. The personality of employees is to be respected and protected, and due consideration is to be given to their health.

In concrete terms, this means that the behavior of employees may not be monitored. However, the prohibition is relative: Surveillance or control systems in the workplace are permissible by way of exception if the surveillance is carried out for other reasons.

Control is Good, Trust Is Better

Does it pay for employers to monitor employees? Are employees more productive because of it? There is no clear answer to this question. The Austrian newspaper “Der Standard” quotes an experiment by an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that proves such an effect. Numerous other studies, however, come to the opposite conclusion. Namely, "that surveillance in the workplace increases stress and lowers job satisfaction," which is detrimental to productivity.

Whether surveillance drives or paralyzes employees depends on the work culture in which you live. If you work in a Chinese factory, you better submit to surveillance and do your best. If you have a job with a lot of responsibility and complex tasks in a Swiss company, you will rather not want to be surveilled.

Ultimately, employee monitoring is a question of trust between employer and employee. Creating a corporate culture of trust is a better strategy than fomenting mistrust with a surveillance apparatus.


Hansjörg Schmid

Hansjörg Schmid