Employee Surveillance: A Great Way to Build Trust and Accountability

Human capital is the most precarious capital there is. With the right team, anything is possible. With the wrong team, nothing is impossible. Any manager will attest to the difficulty in finding one person that is accountable, self-motivating, and efficient. Now imagine leading more than 10,000 people at a corporation. It’s no wonder that large companies are turning to Employee Surveillance technology in order to monitor employee efficiency.

Many will argue that people behave better knowing they’re being watched. But is this a humane way of building trust and creating a winning team?

Employee Surveillance

Outback Steakhouse made national, dystopian news after teaming up with Presto Vision to bring Employee Surveillance to one of their restaurants.

Presto Vision takes advantage of preexisting surveillance cameras that many restaurants already have installed. The system uses machine learning to analyze footage of restaurant staff at work and interacting with guests.

It aims to track metrics like how often a server tends to their tables or how long it takes for food to come out. At the end of a shift, managers receive an email of the compiled statistics, which they can then use to identify problems and infer whether servers, hostesses, and kitchen staff are adequately doing their jobs.

The software has the potential to detect things like when a guest’s drink is almost empty and prompt servers to offer them a refill.

Louise Matsakis, Wired

Less than a week after the story was published, Outback has already called off the program. But Presto Vision will live to monitor another day. And the market is far bigger than Outback Steakhouse.

Walmart has been surveilling its [cashier’s] checkout registers using a computer vision technology called Missed Scan Detection to identify when items move past the scanner without having been scanned.

Natt Garun, The Verge

It’s a system used to maximize the scanning efficiency of cashiers and also monitor for retail shrinkage (i.e. employee theft).

Dominos recently began rolling out its “DOM Pizza Checker” at stores in Australia and New Zealand, which monitors workers as they assemble pies via an AI-equipped overhead camera. If the device detects a poorly made pizza, it alerts workers that it should be remade.

Louise Matsakis, Wired

Amazon received a patent for an ultrasonic bracelet that can detect a warehouse worker’s location and monitor their interaction with inventory bins by using ultrasonic sound pulses.

Ellen Sheng, CNBC

Honestly, it’s not surprising this monitoring exists in retail and warehouse work where the employee turnover rate is 13% (the second highest behind the tech sector).

But it’s coming to the white-collar setting as well.

White-Collar Surveillance

17% of organizations are monitoring work-computer-usage data.

Ellen Sheng, CNBC

A tool like Teramind warns employers when their employees are searching for new jobs. Likewise, Veriato will create entire reports about employee on-screen activity to monitor productivity.

IBM has created an algorithm that can predict which employees are about to quit with 95% accuracy. Rometty said the AI has so far saved IBM nearly $300 million in retention costs.

Eric Rosenbaum, CNBC

It’s an algorithm I could easily see other Fortune 500 companies licensing from IBM.

When the margins are tight and human capital is your biggest expenditure, Employee Surveillance is the obvious place for companies to turn. But I also see it as a lazy form of management.

Surveillance Side-Effects

From the higher management standpoint, employee surveillance makes perfect sense. In theory, the timeline of implementing employee surveillance goes as follows:

  • Implement employee surveillance
  • Catch and fire the stealers, the lazy, and the inefficient employees
  • Fear increases and employees stay in line
  • Employees become accustomed to the system
  • Ignorant employees test the surveillance altogether
  • And the cycle repeats

The problem, though, is that the fear amongst good employees never fully subsides. Their stress levels increase. Their job satisfaction declines. And you actually end up hurting good employees in order to catch a few bad ones.

You can create a more productive worker by pointing a gun at their head all day. But that doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Employee Surveillance lays a fear-inciting foundation where very little organic trust can be created. Additionally, increased monitoring leads to less productive workers because they spend more time trying to evade these monitoring systems.

Unfortunately, we’re trending toward more employee surveillance. And it’s a trend that employees will need to stand against.