With Amazon’s recent announcement about its attempt to patent wearable technology which will enable the tracking of employees’ movements, the question of trust in the workplace has once again been brought to the fore.

While Amazon hasn’t yet made it clear whether it plans to use the wristbands to monitor its own staff, it does suggest that more detailed task and time tracking may start to happen in the workplace. Does monitoring your employees to this level really engender a culture of trust, or does it do exactly the opposite?

There’s now a wealth of technology available that can easily monitor and control our lives in many ways – some of which are attractive to us, some of which may cause outcry. How about GPS-enabled software in your car which sets a 15mph maximum speed within 500m of any school at peak times. This would hugely reduce the accident rate for your children. How about using the same technology to automatically set speed limits on all roads at all times? This could save many lives every year – yet any politician who suggested its implementation would likely find themselves unelectable.

This is because the root of the issue is not the technology itself but the message of trust and individual responsibility that it sends out. And this is why Amazon’s announcement is so divisive.

The issue of trust and employee engagement in the workplace is already well understood. Trust is a critical factor for leaders – we may know where we are going and how we are getting there, but if we don’t trust those who are telling us this then all bets are off. Likewise, employees need to be trusted to do their jobs. The very best managers achieve a balance of clear performance management while allowing their teams to do their jobs in the ways they see best.

This is especially important when it comes down to providing exceptional customer service. The best companies know that giving employees autonomy to go outside of the rule book every now and again both delights customers and goes a long way to delighting employees themselves as well.

In some environments, technology which controls day to day movements may be very positive: algorithms which create the most efficient routes between multiple drop-off points are already commonplace in logistics, saving time and fuel. Start applying these to the ways employees choose to do their jobs however and we may be facing a whole new problem.

In Johan Hari’s excellent new book Lost Connections, he discusses the huge negative impact on our psychological well-being that a lack of autonomy and control at work cause. This in turn has a massively detrimental effect on productivity, efficiency, teamwork and, most critically, engagement.

If engagement is so critical to individual and organisational success, and a key measure of business performance, we need to be very wary of the impact that control technologies can have. There is a delicate balance between performance and well-being, and businesses that undermine this by removing the fundamental building blocks of employee trust will have much tougher issues to face than simply lower engagement levels.

By Nick Thompson
Practice Head: ENGAGE