Can Workplace Surveillance be Productive?

By Koh Wanzi

We’ve looked at the possible negative repercussions of workplace surveillance before. However, there might just be an upside to monitoring worker activity – being able to objectively quantify productivity can help companies tweak their productivity-boosting measures and promote the most efficient employees.

While the issue of privacy will never go away, when carried out judiciously, workplace surveillance can help companies find out what works and what doesn’t.

Better Productivity

Sociometric Solutions is one such company that has made a business out of the positive aspects of workplace surveillance technology. By analysing communication patterns with social sensing technology, it helps organisations create solutions that will transform them into better, more efficient entities. It uses sensor-rich ID badges worn by employees that are equipped with two microphones, a location sensor, and an accelerometer. These badges monitor individuals’ communication behaviour, from their tone of voice, posture and body language to whom they spoke to and for how long. This might appear terribly invasive to some, but Sociometric Solutions is already working with 20 companies in the banking, technology, pharmaceutical and healthcare industries.

To address privacy concerns, the company will only collect data when workers opt in to the programme, and signs a contractual agreement that only aggregate statistics – and not individual data – will be collected. In its work with Bank of America call centres, it was observed that those in tightknit communications groups were more productive and less likely to quit. The bank responded by introducing a shared 15-minute coffee break daily to increase social communication, resulting in a 10 per cent increase in call-handling productivity and a 70 per cent decline in turnover.

Similarly, Sociometric Solutions found at a technology company that workers who sat at larger tables in the cafeteria – which meant more communication – were more productive than those who sat at smaller tables. In a time where certain trends in office design are only assumed to help productivity, this opens up the possibility of scientifically designed work areas which have the hard numbers to back them up. For instance, data-guided insight provided by Sociometric Solutions helped a pharmaceutical company increase sales with a new café area.

Helping Employees Advance

Monitoring software can also objectively identify the most efficient employees, instead of leaving performance up to the subjective appraisals of superiors and co-workers. Software called Restaurant Guard has been used to help eateries monitor waiters as they served tables, tracking individual orders, serve times, and identifying patterns. Jim Sullivan rose to become the manager of an outlet in the restaurant chain he worked for this way – his data had objectively identified him as a great employee. Furthermore, a research paper published last year found that the benefits of monitoring software extended from the individual employee to the restaurants’ bottom lines.

The study looked at 392 restaurants and saw an average increase of US$2,982 a week in revenue for each restaurant – a significant gain. Waiters knew they were being monitored and consequently pushed customers to add on to their orders, resulting in increased revenue. Sullivan now uses the software to monitor his own workers, and he says that it helps him identify the individual strengths and weaknesses of his employees. For example, the data could show that a waiter was better at serving several tables than he was at sales. The data allows Sullivan to tailor his coaching to each employee and offer them the support and guidance that they need.

Exercise Caution

Ultimately, it’s not about whether companies are watching, but what they are watching and why. Employees do stand to benefit when companies examine the effects of things like communication on worker productivity, or quantitatively track employee performance so they can offer better training. As Lamar Pierce, an associate professor at Olin Business School at Washington University said, the key question is, “What is the right level [of surveillance] and in what context is it being done?”

What are your thoughts on surveillance technology as a tool to boost productivity? Share with us in the comment box below!

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