How Office Surveillance Can Backfire

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TikTok is making headlines for all the wrong reasons. Some lessons on what not to do.

Recently, TikTok made headlines for the wrong reasons—introducing a badge monitoring app called MyRTO, aimed at enforcing its office attendance policy as part of a top-down RTO mandate. According to the New York Times, this app tracks employees’ badge swipes and can even penalize them for “deviations” from their expected attendance. While many companies are recalibrating post-pandemic work expectations, TikTok’s approach not only raises serious ethical issues but also amplifies broader concerns about its surveillance culture.

The broad policy for TikTok employees involves coming to the office in person at least three times per week, and a smaller percentage is even required to be in five days per week. The MyRTO tool may demand explanations for absences when the employees were expected to be on-site. The data compiled by MyRTO is shared with human resources and is also made visible to the employees themselves. Notably, the company has even threatened termination for employees whose home addresses do not align with their designated office locations. The policy aims to create “transparency and clarity” about return-to-office expectations, according to a TikTok spokesperson.

Harvard Business Review article finds that such monitoring can have unintended consequences. The researchers conducted a survey of over 100 U.S.-based professionals—some under workplace surveillance and some not. The findings indicated a pronounced trend: employees under scrutiny were notably more prone to unauthorized break-taking, insubordination, willful property damage, stealing and purposefully working at a slow pace, among other rule-breaking behaviors.

Other surveys reveal negative employee attitudes toward surveillance technology. A survey by 1E of 500 IT managers and 500 non-manager IT workers, for example, finds that 73 percent of IT managers said they wouldn’t feel comfortable instructing their staff to deploy productivity surveillance tech. More than a quarter of IT managers indicate an uptick in employees quitting (28 percent) and difficulty hiring new employees (27 percent) when these tools are in use. In turn, a report from Morning Consult of a survey of 750 technology workers finds that at least one in two tech workers said they would not accept a new role in their field if the company used a surveillance technique.

Thus, the tech workers at TikTok are highly likely to be disengaged, demotivated and disillusioned by the MyRTO surveillance technology. It will lead to increased attrition and loss of productivity.

PR Nightmare

Perhaps even more problematic is the association of TikTok with surveillance. The social media platform has been subjected to legislative grillings in Capitol Hill sessions and dangled on the precipice of national bans—largely due to apprehensions around surveillance concerns and its alleged affiliations with the Chinese government. As such, the company is already navigating a precarious PR landscape, making it particularly vulnerable to any additional reputational tarnishes.

The introduction of the MyRTO initiative exacerbates this fragile situation. Far beyond the physical badges, the program serves as a symbolic embodiment of a corporate culture that leans towards Orwellian control mechanisms over fostering an atmosphere of mutual trust and individual autonomy. Cathy Rodgers, the Republican chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, couldn’t have articulated it more clearly. She encapsulated the escalating dilemma by stating, “TikTok has repeatedly chosen the path for more control, more surveillance and more manipulation.”

While TikTok claims it has invested $1.5 billion in ensuring that user data is secure and confined to U.S. soil, actions speak louder than words. The surveillance measures essentially throw gasoline on an already raging fire of mistrust and skepticism. They make it increasingly difficult for TikTok to argue against the narrative that it’s a tool for “control, surveillance and manipulation.”

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