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Learning Corner With Jeffrey Pfeffer: To Build Trust, Cut Down on Surveillance—Even for Employees Working at Home

Jeffrey Pfeffer

Professor of Organizational Behavior, Stanford University

According to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal, at least one type of business is flourishing in our COVID-19-induced world of remote work: companies selling tools that permit employers to monitor how employees spend their time. The chief executive officer of ActivTrak, a company providing employee monitoring software and user behavior analytics, remarked that inquiries had been "a little insane" lately. Teramind, another vendor in the space, has also experienced a tripling of inbound inquiries since mid-March—along with a sizable uptick in additional licenses requested by existing clients to track more users within their organizations.

It’s not surprising that companies would want to increase their surveillance efforts, given worries about a potential decline in productivity among newly remote workers. But before you turn to ever-expanding technologies that allow managers to see their employees’ screens, keep track of the sites they visit, monitor their email (and potentially their phone calls) or use their computer’s camera to watch them, consider these four important facts.

1) Trust Is Fundamental for Effective Organizational Functioning

In the forward to JetBlue’s executive chairman Joel Peterson’s book, The 10 Laws of Trust, Steven Covey referred to trust as "an economic driver," noting that "high trust is a dividend; low trust is a tax." Research backs him up. A longitudinal study of 88 retail stores found that when employees felt trusted by management, they performed better in terms of sales and customer service (in part, because employees accepted more responsibility for their work).

But trust impacts more than external measures of success. It acts like an organizational lubricant—with high trust, there is less friction and people work together more effectively. Moreover, trust affects employees’ willingness to collaborate and share information, since they would be less inclined to divulge valuable and important insights to those whose motives they suspect. For instance, of the 1,202 working-age adults in the U.S surveyed by the Trust Edge Leadership Institute, 23 percent said they would offer more ideas and solutions if they trusted their leaders.

2) Surveillance Diminishes Trust

When a company engages in close surveillance of employees, the action signals that it does not trust staff to get the job done themselves. But this is hardly a new practice. Electronic monitoring of employees long predates COVID-19 and the shift to remote work. Even 14 years ago, a survey found that 78 percent of employers conducted surveillance on employees, with half monitoring phone calls.

That’s because employers believe that their oversight and direction makes things better—something social psychologist Robert Cialdini and I called a "faith in supervision" effect. In essence, observers tend to see work performed under the control of a supervisor as better than identical work done without as much guidance.

But what monitoring actually does is make employers less trusting of their employees. In a classic study conducted by social psychologist Lloyd Strickland more than 60 years ago, participants were randomly assigned to more closely supervise one of two subordinates (actually confederates of the experimenter) in a simulated work environment. When given the choice of who to monitor more closely on a second task, they selected that same person, assuming they were less trustworthy (for no other reason other than they’d already been observing that individual).

The paradox of surveillance is that if a boss is always watching, they can’t possibly know if an employee is trustworthy because that worker has no chance to demonstrate trustworthiness. Until employers take that risk—and allow employees to operate independently—they’ll continue to view the work as a reflection of their oversight rather than the result of an employee’s own motivations and conscientiousness.

3) Companies Should Assess Results Rather Than Micro-Level Behaviors

As long as people comply with the law and applicable regulations to get their work done, why should an employer care how they spend their time? As numerous studies show, hours spent working are often inversely related to productivity. And taking breaks—from school-related study or work—can actually improve concentration.

Presumably, employers hire people to get things done, not necessarily to work certain hours or engage in specific behaviors. This should hold true now more than ever, as more routine tasks become automated, and soft skills, like problem-solving and critical thinking, skyrocket in value.

Yet micromanaging is still a common practice—one that’s a source of deep resentment. Employees are thinking adults and, for the most part, want to be treated as such. They do not want to be viewed as little children who need to be watched all the time.

4) Surveillance Creates Stress and Health Problems

In computer- or software-based monitoring, work and scheduling decisions are ultimately controlled by a machine, a practice some refer to as algorithmic management. As a result, employees do not have, or do not feel they have, the freedom to reach out to peers for advice and social support as they do their work.

The stress that arises from this degradation in job autonomy and job control can actually lead to both short-term illness and long-term changes in health status. A study of more than 700 AT&T employees found that people who had their work electronically monitored perceived their working conditions as more stressful and reported more psychological tension, anxiety, depression, fatigue and health complaints. Meanwhile, an analysis of several field experiments and surveys found that, compared with people at low-trust companies, people at high-trust companies reported 74% less stress, 106% more energy at work, 13% fewer sick days and 40% less burnout.

The Only Way to Build Trust Is by Trusting

In addition to reducing the sense of freedom so fundamental to both employee well-being and engagement, close supervision undermines the trust leaders have in the people they manage (and vice versa). Cultures of trust rely on less surveillance, not more.

Coincidentally, the COVID-19 pandemic gives workplaces the opportunity to do something they should have done a long time ago: provide people with morecontrol over their own work, greaterjob autonomy and added responsibility—in other words, treat them in a manner consistent with who they are: sentient adults.

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