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How far should companies go when...

How far should companies go when monitoring remote workers?

By: Phil Hardwick - July 7, 2023

Even though the employer may begin monitoring employees with the best of intentions, things can go too far. Technology is advancing faster than privacy policies can keep up.

The rise in remote work has many companies wondering if some of its employees are productive and working as they should be. It has also made many employees who are working remotely wonder if the company is snooping a little bit too much on them. 

Perhaps it is a good time to pause and recall how one company with the best of intentions went too far in getting into the personal lives of its employees. It was back in the 1910’s, and that company was Ford Motor Company.

Phil Hardwick

In 1914, the Sociological Department of the company was created. Its purpose was to establish and enforce rules and codes of behavior that Ford employees had to adhere to in order to qualify for the $5.00 per hour daily wage. Employees were monitored at work and at home. The company’s investigators made unannounced visits to employees’ homes to make sure that employees were up to improving their lives. 

Although this sounds like snooping, which it was, the Sociological Department investigators actually assisted families by teaching them how to improve their lives by making certain that the kids were attending school, the home was safe and clean, and that employees were doing the things that should be done to improve their quality of life. The company even monitored employees’ bank accounts to make sure that deposits were being made.

If all this sounds like a little too much intrusion on daily life, it should be remembered that many of the employees needed to know and understand ways to improve their lives.

Also, many of the employees were immigrants and were unfamiliar with the ways of their new country. Many, if not most, did not speak English. To help those employees integrate into society and their work roles, the Ford English School was established. English classes were offered free of charge after work and were conducted by other employees. The ways of the company and of America were standard subjects. Upon completion of the program, graduates attended a ceremony where they were “transformed into Americans.” At the ceremony, they were changed from their native country’s costumes to “American” suits.

If all this sounds too instructive on daily lives, consider that the company was attempting to manufacture cars that were in high demand, in factories by today’s standards would be considered unsafe and working conditions rather appalling. Worker attrition was atrocious. In 1913, over 52,000 employees cycled through only 14,000 jobs. Something had to be done.

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So, does any of that have relevance to today’s workforce as it relates to remote work? The answer is yes in that it appears that more employers are, and will be, “intruding” on the lives of their employees. 

Although many employees, especially those in the finance and investment sectors, are returning to the office, remote work is here to stay. Among the many issues dealing with the subject is how much control should employers have over their remote workers.

Should employees’ computers be set up for constant monitoring? When should microphones and cameras be turned on? Should the employer have remote access? Should employees be informed of what techniques, systems, and methods are being used to monitor their work?

Dan Schawbel, New York Times bestselling author and Managing Partner of Workplace Intelligence, says in an August 17, 2020 LinkedIn post that employers may already be monitoring employees without their consent. He reported that a study found that 62% of companies are now using technology tools to collect data on their employees. Yes, that was in 2020. Wonder what it is now.

Employees apparently do not mind being monitored if there is a clear purpose for it, and it can help them be more productive. Indeed, a Gartner study, as reported on the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) website, revealed that employees are becoming increasingly comfortable with employee monitoring, especially if the employer is transparent about it. However, employees tend to object to monitoring certain personal areas of their lives such as social media accounts (72%), physical movement (57%), and personal interactions (56%), according to a poll from the HR metrics and analytics summit.

One of the lessons to be learned from all of this is that even though the employer may begin monitoring employees with the best of intentions, things can go too far. Technology is advancing faster than privacy policies can keep up. One can only wonder how far it will go.

About the Author(s)
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Phil Hardwick

Phil Hardwick is an award-winning business columnist and semi-retired economic developer. He also served as an adjunct faculty member at the Millsaps College Else School of Management for many years. He has taught over 1,000 students, written over 800 columns, written 11 books and assisted over 100 communities and organizations with strategic planning. In February 2016 he was inducted as a Lifetime Member of the Mississippi Economic Development Council.