Employment and labour markets

COVID-19, Big Brother and the business case for doing better

The COVID-19 pandemic compelled governments to take exceptional measures to monitor and control the spread of the Coronavirus. Among them was the introduction in most EU Member States of tracking apps to gather data on citizens who have contracted the virus and to trace their contacts, a measure that inevitably traded off privacy protection for effective infection prevention.

    The practice of tracking has become more pervasive among businesses too. As the numbers of employees working from home rocketed, managers were forced to rethink and adjust their management approach. Some businesses have invested in ‘Big Brother’ type tools that allow for close monitoring of what their workers are up to while working remotely, such as software that tracks their keystrokes or takes pictures of their screens.

    Whereas government interventions and contact-tracing apps infringe on privacy for the common good – to curb the pandemic and limit loss of life – the objective of digital monitoring of employees is merely to avoid productivity loss. And whereas governments will be held accountable for their policies, business policies are introduced at the discretion of management, and any consent obtained from workers is largely invalidated by unequal power relations between employers and employees.

    Is it worth it?

    One could therefore make a case against digital monitoring based on the morality of the practice. However, it might be easier to just let the data speak: the European Company Survey (ECS) 2019 suggests that management approaches based on monitoring and control are actually bad for business.

    In the most successful businesses, managers were found to facilitate employees to work independently rather than to focus on controlling whether they carried out their tasks. Closely monitoring employee behaviour might indeed ensure that workers do their job but is unlikely to motivate them to go beyond their job description. Instead, good managers recognise that having a certain degree of autonomy is a motivational factor and that limiting this autonomy by exerting their control might actually be counterproductive. And rather than jeopardising trust by signalling distrust through monitoring, they turn to incentive-based approaches that seek to align the interests of workers and management.

    These approaches are particularly effective when they go beyond monetary incentives and when incentivisation is embedded in the way jobs are designed and work is organised. Jobs can be designed such that they challenge employees while at the same time giving them the autonomy to independently overcome these challenges, providing opportunities for learning and fulfilment. Good job design should be combined with a comprehensive approach to skills development, offering a range of training and learning opportunities to all employees. Furthermore, employee voice should be facilitated, by involving employees in strategic decision-making directly and by engaging in workplace social dialogue with worker representatives, creating a sense of ownership and belonging.

    Supportive versus suspicious management

    Managers who responded to the increase in remote working by investing in digital monitoring would do well to reflect on the wider workplace practices in their business. They are likely to be missing out on the opportunities to increase employee motivation and productivity that arise from improvements in job design and optimisation of the channels through which employees and managers communicate.

    Managers would also do well to reflect on their own attitudes, as the ECS 2019 clearly shows that practices that allow employees to work independently, to use and develop their skills, and to share their knowledge and insights with colleagues and management work best when accompanied by supportive management. In order for employees to be motivated to go the extra mile, they need to trust that management will not take advantage. And because trust breeds trust, the mistrust demonstrated by systematically checking whether employees hit their keyboard often enough and never shop online is not a good place to start.

    And when normality returns

    These reflections will also help when workers return to the business premises. In this regard, all managers should seek to draw lessons from the recent ‘COVID experience’. Many businesses did not introduce digital monitoring tools but relied on facilitation and incentive-based approaches to ensuring business continuity and employee productivity. Businesses should seize the opportunity to retain or build upon such people-centred management approaches, seeking to stimulate and motivate workers, rather than to revert to old ways just because they can.

    Governments and social partners can help businesses by offering training and education for managers to up their people-management skills and by facilitating knowledge-sharing and cross-learning. European and national policymakers could go further and attach guidelines or even requirements on people-centred management to any COVID-19 relief funds.

    Growing numbers of disenfranchised citizens are seeking solace in populist rhetoric and conspiracy theories – which undermines our democratic institutions and reduces the effectiveness of any government responses to the COVID-19 pandemic. Because discontented workers tend to be discontented citizens, there is a clear and urgent societal interest in ensuring that employees are treated respectfully at the workplace. Emphasising the business case for people-centred management could help dissuade companies of the need to resort to Big Brother at the workplace, and prevent a step towards the types of regime Orwell’s 1984 warns against.

    Image © carles/Adobe Stock

    Research carried out prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union on 31 January 2020, and published subsequently, may include data relating to the 28 EU Member States. Following this date, research only takes into account the 27 EU Member States (EU28 minus the UK), unless specified otherwise.

    Part of the series

    • European Company Survey 2019

      Eurofound’s European Company Survey (ECS) maps and analyses company policies and practices which can have an impact on smart, sustainable and inclusive growth, as well as the development of social dialogue in companies. This series consists of outputs from the ECS 2019, the fourth edition of the survey. The survey was first carried out in 2004–2005 as the European Survey on Working Time and Work-Life Balance. 

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