When spying on your staff backfires

As Barclays' recently-scrapped tracking software shows, snooping on your colleagues is never a good idea.

by Stephen Jones
Last Updated: 21 Feb 2020

Science fiction is not short of authoritarian dystopias.

In Minority Report, the 1965 short story by Philip K Dick and 2002 Tom Cruise thriller, the PreCrime Division uses the predictive powers of precogs to observe and prevent crimes before they’ve even happened. In Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, the totalitarian Big Brother uses Telescreens to observe and control the thoughts and actions of the subservient citizens of Oceania. 

The bosses at Barclays plc in 2020 seem to have taken some inspiration from all this, installing tracking software into office computers to monitor how long staff are spending at their desk, compiling data and issuing reports on what they’re doing and whether or not they are “in the zone”. 

At least that was the idea, but Barclays has scrapped the controversial policy after a backlash from HR groups and privacy campaigners, who labelled the software draconian and in breach of individual employee rights. It's not hard to see why. 

Bosses in the firm’s investment bank introduced the Sapience software as part of a pilot last week at its Canary Wharf headquarters. The programme allowed managers to analyse an individual staffer’s data, including how long they were ‘active’ at their desk and the proportion of time spent working on particular tasks. Staffers would then be sent reports on their performance and reminders of ways that they could get more done.  

An internal whistleblower told City AM that the programme was causing staff stress “beyond belief” and pressuring them to cut down on breaks. They also believed it showed a “complete lack of regard for employee wellbeing.” It’s not the first time the bank has come under fire for it’s ‘intrusive’ methods and it is not the only firm to do so. 

In fairness to Barclays, bosses probably introduced the software with the best of intentions, as a way of boosting productivity, ensuring that the time at desks was spent in a way that gets the best out of staff. The bank also didn’t technically stop staff from leaving their desks. 

Perhaps that was an optimistic view. But clearly it’s not been perceived that way, and could have the opposite effect, productivity-wise.

If staff don’t feel like they’re trusted or feel under pressure to be present at their desks, it not only risks burnout but also the creation of toxic incentives. Banking hardly had a reputation as a bastion of psychological safety before adding draconian monitoring software into the mix.

Rob Cross, CEO of consultancy firm Muru Leadership, says there’s a further consequence to snooping on your staff: it seeks to compensate for bad leaders.   

“The reality is that it allows poor leaders to abdicate their responsibility for understanding the people on their team and working with them to unlock their potential,” adds Cross. 

Employee engagement is often over-complicated by businesses. The firms that get it right appreciate that at its heart, it’s about ensuring that employees are given the space and the tools to perform at their best. 

This can come in many forms, including ensuring staff have regular breaks, as well as removing the distraction of excessive or unnecessary email and meeting practices, but ultimately, as Cross highlights, it’s down to management.

Ensuring an organisation has a consistent layer of emotionally intelligent middle managers with the communication practices to match is admittedly a challenge for multinational behemoths. Encouraging them to spy on their people is not the solution. 

Image credit: Archive Photos / Stringer via Getty Images

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