Weighing In on Electronic Performance Monitoring
By Coy Hillstead, EdD, University of Minnesota
Advancements in technology have had a profound effect on an employer’s ability to monitor productivity and assess employee work. Electronic performance monitoring (EPM), which helps employers observe, record, and analyze job performance, is increasingly popular, and can help managers assess staff needs as well as improve productivity. However, employers should consider potential personnel costs and adjust monitoring approaches to avoid or mitigate these issues. And a handful of states (including Connecticut, Delaware, and New York) require transparency — fully disclosing how employees are being tracked.1
While EPM isn’t new, interest remains high, especially in an increasingly remote work environment. For example, a 2014 study showed more than six out of 10 C-suite level executives (62%) were using EPM and other technologies to gain actionable insights about employees — from quality of work and collaboration to assessing their safety and well-being.2 Seven years later, a 2021 survey of 1,250 employers showed that more than half are using monitoring software.3
How It Works
EPM is accomplished with camera systems, computer and phone monitoring or blocking, as well as wearable technologies and smartphones, including Fitbits and mobile GPS tracking applications.3 Companies pay between $5 and $30 per employee for monitoring software, and return on investment for systems — sometimes called “bossware” — can increase productivity from 22% to 32%, according to vendors.4
What isn’t reflected in this calculation, however, is the potential cost of increased stress and anxiety among employees. EPM is commonly used4 in call centers and warehouses, and with delivery drivers and retail cashiers in the following ways:
- The routes of package delivery drivers are examined using a GPS recording device to assess efficiency.
- Call center operators are tracked by the number of calls they successfully process each hour.
- Warehouse workers are tracked by the number of items they handle per hour.
While these are objective means to evaluate job performance, EPM has prompted fears that “Big Brother is watching,” which can reduce perceived levels of autonomy and independence, and lead to more robotic actions, reduced problem-solving, and less creativity.4,5
For example, EPM has prompted some employees to focus solely on what positively influences the information that’s being tracked and avoid tasks that are not being monitored. For example, delivery drivers whose job performance is based solely on the number of packages they deliver might have less incentive to spend quality time with customers who are experiencing issues. This lends to the notion of “what gets measured gets done.” If job functions are not measured, employees might not focus on those tasks. It can also negatively affect the well-being of employees who struggle with stress and anxiety. One of the earliest negative viewpoints of EPM was published in the 1998 book The Electronic Sweatshop by Barbara Garson, who wrote that it turns “the office of the future into the factory of the past.”
It’s debatable whether that prediction came to fruition though there is a documented correlation between EPM and heightened worker stress, specifically with tasks that are difficult to perform5 such as attempts to research and resolve a customer issue while being timed or knowing your boss is tracking the number of customers processed in a day.
Customizing Technology to Avoid Issues
Before purchasing an EPM system, employers should consider how the technology could affect employees. These systems can be tailored to meet employer needs for monitoring without affecting employee mental health and wellness. A few suggestions:7
- Allow employees to contribute to the design and structure of EPM to reduce undesired side effects.
- Conduct electronic monitoring within a group or team instead of individually so one employee is not the sole focus of monitoring and may find relief in team assessments.
- Provide advance notification to employees about when they will be monitored for a specific time. Advance notice can reduce stress associated with employee perception of being under the microscope and assessed even when they are not. Additionally, advanced notice can help with perceptions of EPM fairness.6
- Use outcomes from EPM primarily for coaching and feedback instead of solely for punitive reasons.
- Allow employees who meet standards to be monitored less frequently.
If an employee seeks accommodations for EPM — an interactive process that should include employees, supervisors, and human resources — employers should consider how that could affect the rest of the team. For example, employees who are held to metric-based performance standards might complain about perceived unfairness if their colleagues are held to a lower standard. This is one reason why monitoring teams instead of individuals is worth considering.
Finding the optimal balance between workplace productivity and employee well-being is ideal when implementing EPM systems. Being receptive to requests for medical accommodations from stress and anxiety associated with EPM could be a distinguishing factor for employers of choice. EPM systems that are highly intrusive may intensify employee stress and anxiety, which can lead to adverse outcomes such as reduced employee health, well-being, and fatigue.7,8
- Gordon P, J Flanagan, and S Soucy. Turn on the Lights: New York Mandates Transparency in Electronic Monitoring. Nov. 11, 2021. Retrieved from com/publication-press/publication/turn-lights-new-york-mandates-transparency-electronic-monitoring
- Crowe P. The Pros and Cons of Using Employee Monitoring Technology. Financial Management. May 31, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.fm-magazine.com/issues/2021/jun/employee-monitoring-technology-pros-cons.html
- Bhave DP. The Invisible Eye? Electronic Performance Monitoring and Employee Job Performance. Personnel Psychology. 2014;67(3):605-635.
- Survey: 60% of Employers Use Software to Monitor Remote Workers. HRMorning. Oct. 13, 2021. Retrieved from https://www.hrmorning.com/news/monitoring-software-study/
- Cyphers B and K Gullo. Inside the Invasive, Secretive “Bossware” Tracking Workers. Electronic Frontier Foundation report. Retrieved from https://www.eff.org/deeplinks/2020/06/inside-invasive-secretive-bossware-tracking-workers
- More Responsible Use of Workforce Data Required to Strengthen Employee Trust and Unlock Growth. Jan. 21, 2019. Retrieved from https://newsroom.accenture.com/news/more-responsible-use-of-workforce-data-required-to-strengthen-employee-trust-and-unlock-growth-according-to-accenture-report.htm
- Tomczak DL, LA Lanzo, and H Aguinis. Evidence-Based Recommendations for Employee Performance Monitoring. Business Horizons. 2018;61(2):251-259.
- Kolb KJ and JR Aiello. The Effects of Electronic Performance Monitoring on Stress: Locus of Control as a Moderator Variable. Computers in Human Behavior. 1996;12(3):407-423.