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Monitoring customer service staff: How much is too much?

The adoption of monitoring tools is expected to accelerate in light of greater homeworking, and with companies seeking to improve performance. But when does it become too intrusive - and counterproductive?

31st Mar 2021
Managing editor MyCustomer.com
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Late last week, The Guardian published an exclusive report claiming that one of the world’s largest call centre companies was planning to use webcams to monitor its homeworking staff. 

According to the report, Teleperformance, which employs about 380,000 people across 34 countries, had informed staff that specialist webcams were to be fitted in the next month to monitor for homeworking “infractions”.

While the webcams would also be used for meetings and training, the report alleges that they would also be connected to an AI system called TP Observer that would scan for breaches of work rules, such as leaving their desk without notification that they are taking a break, or eating while on a shift. In the event that a breach was detected, a picture would be taken and stored. 

The allegations have been robustly denied by Teleperformance. A spokeswoman insisted that the webcams will be used only for collaboration purposes (“Scheduled video calls between team managers and telecommuting employees, and voluntary use by telecommuting staff in team building activities for meetings and training sessions.”) and security purposes (ensuring that “employees who use webcams to process customer’s personal data or sensitive personal data on behalf of clients have the right level of security and cleanliness for their office environment.”) and will not be used to spy on staff. 

This report comes a year after banking giant Barclays was forced to scrap a computer monitoring system that was designed to track employees. Barclays had implemented a software called Sapsience to monitor the effectiveness of employees’ time at their desks, sending warnings to those taking too many breaks. But facing a staff backlash, the bank rapidly backpedalled. 

Yet these stories are unlikely to go away. Employee monitoring already takes place to a lesser or greater extent as part of many workforce management programmes. And while spying on staff through webcams seems a cut above, companies are exploring many ways in which they can better adapt to the new working environment heralded by the pandemic. 

How are companies adapting to the new working environment?

Homeworking has increased dramatically over the past 12 months, and evidence indicates that the shift to homeworking/hybrid working could be permanent. A survey of 100 businesses based in North America and Europe from a range of industries by Expert Market, found that 74% of business owners and CEOs said all employees at their company are working remotely - and that 72% anticipated employees will want to remain working from home, even once the organisation returns to the office.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is anticipated that organisations will be exploring how they can better monitor staff in a bid to optimise engagement, wellbeing and productivity.

"The migration to homeworking for many organisations was a major shift in culture as well as working practices," says Leigh Hopwood, CEO of the Call Centre Management Association (CCMA). "From talking to our members, many organisations have embraced this new way of working and are now looking at hybrid models that capture the benefits of both homeworking and working in the office. Different organisations have different approaches to the use of technology to support their frontline colleagues regardless of where they are working, and many are monitoring employee engagement and customer satisfaction levels, as well as productivity, absenteeism and attrition, to determine how they may invest to continue to build great places to work that deliver excellence in customer experience."

And research even indicates that more robust monitoring wouldn’t necessarily be unwelcome with employees. 

GetApp recently conducted a survey to understand employees’ attitude towards work surveillance and how employers are using surveillance software. It found that the uncertainty of the pandemic has driven increased spend on monitoring software. Nearly two-thirds of managers who use the tools (63%) say they are spending more than planned - with 18% saying their projected budget has doubled. 71% of managers say they will continue to invest in this type of software in 2021 and beyond.

Yet when asked if they would opt-out of being monitored if they had the option to do so, nearly half of employees (45%) said that they would not. The findings suggested that employees can see some benefits to monitoring, with 58% saying that it is useful for logging attendance, inducing overtime and 40% reporting that it helps them manage workloads. 

The overall picture, however, is mixed - with around as many considering monitoring to be negative as positive. 

Employee monitoring


How useful are monitoring tools?

“The traditional work patterns have changed in the past 12 months since the pandemic began,” says Sonia Navarrete, content analyst at GetApp. “Companies are looking for ways to make sure that employee productivity is still high despite working remotely.

“Managers see monitoring as being useful for a wider range of applications than employees. For example, 23% of managers monitor social media usage by employees, while just 10% of employees feel this type of surveillance is useful for the job. 30% of managers use it to monitor digital communications (emails, instant chat, video conferences), while only 19% of employees see a use case. 35% of managers use video surveillance measures despite only 13% of employees agreeing that this is useful in a professional context.

“Despite the difference in opinions about the usage of surveillance software, managers and employees see similar benefits — the biggest one being the ability to ensure that all hours and overtime are taken into account.”

Video surveillance, however, ranked particularly poorly in the GetApp research amongst employees - with few believing that the ends justify the means. Indeed, the evidence suggests that this kind of employee monitoring not only doesn’t help with employee wellbeing, engagement and productivity, but may in fact harm it. 

David Plans, head of research and scientific dissemination at Huma, and former CEO at BioBeats, has pointed to the impact of Barclays’ surveillance initiative: “The company openly spoke about how the aim was to increase productivity and improve output, but overall it was deemed to have a detrimental effect on employee wellbeing. The process was met with much contrition, with many staff members feeling disinclined to perform at their best level, and being of the opinion that the system was a hindrance to creativity.”

Elsewhere, Jonathan Allan, CMO at Puzzel, believes that there has been plenty of evidence during the pandemic to suggest that there is no need for this level of intrusiveness, despite early fears over productivity. 

“The transition to homeworking has resulted in a myriad of impacts to individual employees’ wellbeing and overall productivity. While working from home may have been unfairly typecast as ‘time off’ in the past, in fact such enforced ways of working during the pandemic has seen an uptick in productivity for millions, according to numerous research studies,” he says. 

Helen Jamieson, MD at Jaluch HR, agrees: “Excessive or intrusive monitoring does nothing for customer care, quality or even productivity in some cases. It makes for disengaged staff, disgruntled staff, staff determined to ‘beat’ the system, and an overall an environment of lack of care, irritation and bolshiness. None of which are great for successful business.

Marc Whitelaw, academy director at The Green Energy Advice Bureau, an energy consultancy based in Newcastle with a 150 strong call centre team, adds: “Technology which allows us to connect via video for the purpose of meetings is good for keeping people engaged and provides a certain level of social interaction when lone working. Having a webcam monitor you in your own home, to me, feels too intrusive and as a result may cause additional issues with this level of surveillance. There has to be an element of trust in working from home. A good manager can lead from afar by keeping colleagues engaged and motivated without the need of a camera lens.”

Will monitoring tools become mainstream?

At the time of the Barclays story, UK trade union Prospect voiced its concerns that we were witnessing “the mainstreaming of online monitoring tools”. But Richard Alvin, group director of Capital Business Media - a publishing company which has operated remote working for over a decade - believes that video monitoring is unlikely to become commonplace. 

“I don't think this will be a widely spread trend, at least not within companies with a strong workplace culture and trust amongst the team. Great leaders recognise that a little trust goes a long way, and adding ridiculous rules and micro management to the mix not only makes employees unhappy, but it significantly impacts the quality of their work. Any firm looking to continue with flexible/remote working should look to invest in their employees rather than the latest spy technology. Show an employee they are a valued part of the business and they will act like one."

Jonathan Allan concludes that companies should consider less invasive ways of ensuring their employees are engaged when working remotely, with discussions focused on outputs and outcomes, rather than time spent at their desks. “Trust is key to engagement, and such trust is developed over time through relationships built on honest conversations with managers and leadership. It is through this lens, alongside the right technology, that contact centres can continue to increase productivity and improve customer relationships.”

Camilla Winlo, director of consultancy services at DQM GRC, recommends that companies should consider the following questions before implementing more robust employee monitoring software: 

  1. Is this actually going to work?
  2. Is there a less intrusive alternative?
  3. How far can you restrict the number of individuals whose privacy is intruded upon?
  4. How much can you restrict the amount of time individuals’ privacy is intruded upon?
  5. Are there any other controls you can implement to reduce the privacy intrusion?
  6. How will you consult with and inform employees so they understand when they might be under surveillance and agree that that is proportionate in the circumstances?

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