On Campus

When a Computer Is Watching You, It’s Not Always Bad


By Noelle Barker

Eleven seconds between phone calls and 12 minutes of personal breaks per day were part of Gayle Grant’s daily time allotment while working as an airlines reservation agent. Her actions were tracked down to the second by her employer through computer monitoring. Grant eventually suffered a nervous breakdown because of the high stress she suffered in her work environment.

Grant is one of 26 million American office workers who are monitored through their computers. Using computer monitoring, their employers seek to increase employee productivity, cut costs, resolve personnel problems, and remain competitive in a global marketplace. Heated debates have ensued over computer monitoring as it has become widespread. To prevent cases similar to Grant’s from recurring, several attempts have been made to enact legislation that would limit monitoring in the workplace. Kristen Bell DeTienne, an assistant professor in the Marriott School of Management, has conducted many studies on computer monitoring and argues that, depending on how it is implemented, the practice can actually be a force for good.

“Although risks of abuse are real, computer monitoring can indeed inspire some employees to achieve excellence,” DeTienne wrote in an article for The Futurist magazine.

If used to motivate and inspire employees, computer monitoring can be a successful means of achieving employee excellence; however, when abused, monitoring is capable of not only reducing employee morale but also creating Þnancial loss for the company whose disgruntled workers seek employment elsewhere.

Computer monitoring allows employers to track their employees’ productivity so closely that supervisors know exactly how many seconds employees spend during phone calls, between phone calls, at the computer, and on breaks. Some employers even know how many minutes employees spend in the rest room. In her studies of national and international corporations, particularly among airlines, DeTienne found that company executives feel computer monitoring is necessary.

“Just to remain internationally competitive and to keep their fares consistent with the other airlines, they felt they had to do that,” DeTienne says. “Monitoring can also increase fairness between employees so one person isn’t taking a 20-minute break and another only a 10-minute break. It creates a clear accountability of when employees are on the phone and when they aren’t.”

The majority of companies using computer monitoring are large corporations whose hundreds, if not thousands, of employees depend on computers and telephones to perform their work. In addition to all major airlines, many telemarketing, customer-service, and directory-assistance companies use computer monitoring to measure their employees’ productivity.

Critics of computer monitoring claim it increases stress and reduces job satisfaction among employees. DeTienne recognizes the additional stress in a work atmosphere where the employer is constantly monitoring the productivity of employees, but she doesn’t blame the technology.

“Of course you’re going to experience more stress and less satisfaction working for a company that wants to know what you’re doing every second of the day and dealing with a supervisor who complains if you are in the bathroom Þve minutes too long,” DeTienne says. “That’s pretty clear. But it’s not necessarily the monitoring that’s causing those things; the technology itself is not at fault. It’s more how the technology is being used.”

Employees can be just as stressed in work environments that don’t use computer monitoring. DeTienne speaks of companies where supervisors are constantly looking over employees’ shoulders and pushing them to work faster, concluding that it’s not technology but employers who create stressful work environments.

Not all employees are against being monitored by their supervisors. Results of one study DeTienne conducted showed that many airline reservation agents preferred computer monitoring and found it appropriate and beneficial. The main issue among agents was not whether monitoring should be used but how it would be conducted and how the information gathered would be put to use.

DeTienne provides several suggestions for how employers can use computer monitoring to fulÞll the objectives of the company as well as to better serve the employees.

“Involve the employees in the monitoring policy as you’re setting it up,” DeTienne says. “After that, have a trial period so they can get used to it before monitoring actually affects their performance reviews.”

DeTienne recommends providing employees with access to the data and allowing them to check their own performance and compare it with their coworkers. She also encourages letting employees know what information is being collected rather than keeping it a secret.

Most important, DeTienne believes monitoring can inspire employees to achieve excellence if used as a coaching tool. “Currently, many organizations use the information gathered as a basis for criticism,” DeTienne wrote in The Futurist. “Companies will begin to realize that it is more motivating for employees to be coached rather than reproached.”

When employers sit down with individual employees to review computer-generated information in a nonthreatening manner, employees are more likely to be supportive of the monitoring, says DeTienne. They will, consequently, be more willing to adjust their behavior in accordance with company goals. Conversely, using computer monitoring as a disciplinary tool will systematically transform the American office into a 21st-century “electronic sweatshop” with low morale and low job satisfaction.

“A key to making computer-based monitoring work is having a good supervisor who is þexible on policy, open to questions, and skillful in using the monitoring to motivate and coach employees,” DeTienne says.

Regardless of whether employers implement computer monitoring, she says, the most successful companies will be those that treat their employees fairly and respectfully.

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