Beware ‘snooptech’

Ben Gallagher, co-founder of B+A, a management consultancy, raised an interesting slant on new digital possibilities

‘Snooptech’, as the Telegraph reported recently, is a £2.7billion industry

The increasing sophistication of digital tools, as well as the continued stagnancy of productivity in the UK, has created a market for technology whose sole purpose is to allow companies to watch their staff and track their movements

These tools promise an alarming degree of scrutiny: there are tools which let companies record and monitor calls, emails, even keystrokes – while they might be created or used with the aim of increasing productivity, there are arguments that highlight that the unintended negative consequences of such a move might far outweigh the benefits.

First, these practices raise questions about ownership – if a business is recording everything its staff does, then in effect it is claiming the right to possess that information – and yet, at best obscured with legal language and buried deep in an employment contract, the terms of this arrangement are unlikely to be clear to the member of staff in question – the standard by which staff are being held is therefore an invisible one, and if this were not bad enough for the average employee, it’s especially concerning for creatives, who may not realise that even their half-formed ideas or earliest creative expressions, possibly not even committed to paper, could belong to someone else.

Trust is granular – it’s made up of a multitude of small acts that build up over time – this is a process that you can’t force or hasten, and it’s a natural outcome in a business that hires carefully and gives its workers autonomy within their respective roles

Of course, identifying the ‘right’ level of autonomy is a never-ending project, involving setting boundaries and then enabling team members to grow to fill them until the right relationship is reached – but business culture is like that — complex, fluid and naturally evolving in certain conditions – its intricacy and difficulty in building is proportionate to its importance

Healthy workplace cultures are also diverse – only by bringing together people with different ways of seeing, doing and being can you have the creative tension needed to arrive at new ideas – and with diversity in people comes diversity in how, where and when they are most effective – one person’s five minutes at the coffee machine is different to another’s – it’s there, while having a conversation with a colleague, that a lightbulb might go off in one person’s head – for another, that five minutes supplies the time away from the screen they need to come back to their work with renewed enthusiasm and determination

The risk with productivity tracking is that it won’t allow for personalisation of metrics – to track everyone according to the same or similar standards is to ignore the valuable differences between team members — in essence, the individuality of each person you have taken time and effort to employ – you could quickly find yourself one step removed from commodifying staff entirely, treating them like machines whose behaviour is managed with homogenised guidelines that reflect the predictable middle ground for all, rather than the brilliance of each

Finally, ‘Snooptech’ implies a number of more general qualities which should be considered catastrophic for a business in the long term, and undesirable in any person, group or institution

By defining ‘optimal’ workplace behaviour, a business assumes perfect knowledge – it’s a fundamentally close-minded approach, suggesting that the business already has the information it needs to govern the working lives of its workforce in the best possible way

There’s a real arrogance, even delusion in this – it implies that each person couldn’t possibly know which ways of working are best for them, and that there is nothing to gain by empowering them to work in that way. – but it also closes the door on creativity, which by definition is a venturing-out into the unknown – new ideas give vitality to businesses without them, they grow stale.

If the goal of all this is truly to improve efficiency, then the businesses that have embraced ‘snooptech’ suffer from short-sightedness – in the long term, there is no way that a business can thrive in a culture of paranoia such as that brought about by the enthusiastic use of workplace surveillance

Ultimately, and as many highly successful businesses are starting to recognise, those who are given permission to manage their time and their energy, to form relationships with their co-workers, and to express themselves creatively enjoy their work and work harder as a result – they work because they’re engaged, but they also work for those around them – it sometimes seems that in our relentless march to productivity, productivity, productivity, we’re actually heading in the wrong direction.


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