Study: Managers misuse tech to control workers

Managers with outdated notions about controlling workers are misusing technology to monitor and micromanage employees, according to a new study.

"The Future Role of Trust in Work," released this week by the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and sponsored by Microsoft Corp., collates research from 15 major field studies conducted around the world during the past three years. It reveals that managers are using technologies such as e-mail, mobile phones and Short Messaging Service to keep tabs on employees. Such monitoring actually reduces workers' productivity and the amount of time that they spend serving customers, the report said.

Modern work has become more mobile and less visible to managers, causing them to use mobile technology to check in on workers, said Carsten Sorensen, an LSE researcher and author of the study. Meanwhile, employees seek to demonstrate to managers their diligence through a flood of e-mail and messages, he said.

This is an inappropriate use of the technology, and companies should be working to create technologies that foster group work and increased transparency in a trusted environment, Sorensen said. He suggested a shift away from individual productivity tools to technology that offers group productivity.

"Mobile groupware and software that raises awareness about what others are doing would help bring productivity to the next level," he said. Sorensen gave the example of an instant messaging program that includes information on how many words a minute a colleague is typing, so users could decide if they want to contact the colleague when he appears to be busy.

While such new technologies would result in more visibility about what workers are doing and less privacy, Sorensen's view is that greater awareness of other people's activities is just part of working in the modern world. "When managers can't see what a worker is doing, there needs to be more visibility, but there also needs to be trust," he said.

Sorensen noted that data mining and time and space management technologies also may create more visibility for individuals. "All of this will probably make the privacy people puke, but they have to grow up. It's a new world," he said.

In fact, some professions rely on monitoring. For example, lawyers bill by the hour, and truck drivers use the Global Positioning System to track their availability, Sorensen said. In most professions, however, it's not as important to monitor the worker as it is to see his work, and for this, companies need to come up with new technologies, he said.

The report was issued as part of a long-term study initiated by Microsoft called Tomorrow's Work, which seeks to explore how people manage their personal and professional lives in the Digital Age.

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