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Be careful what you say - they might be listening

TECHNOLOGY is helping employers to monitor staff performance and behaviour. Systems developed to help manage telephone call centres are being exported to other workplaces while the increasing number of staff working from home is encouraging managers to look more closely at what staff achieve with their time.

Call centres have come to rely on sophisticated performance monitoring. "The call centre environment can be very pressurised, with operators given targets in most circumstances," says Linda Barber, research fellow at the Institute for Employment Studies, who has made a study of call centres.

"The idea of monitoring can be stressful, and I am sure there are many organisations where there is bad practice. In financial services it can be productive: recording all calls reduces errors and increases reliability. It also provides evidence if customers challenge what has happened. Supervisors often listen in, giving feedback after the caller has gone. If an employee is making a case for a higher salary then the evidence of performance is there.

"Some call centres have absolutely staggering monitoring systems, with supervisors having something like a pilot's desk. They will know how long each call has lasted and are able to intervene if a call has gone on too long."

Systems developed for use in call centres are now being transferred to other environments. Andy Mulholland, divisional director for technology markets at IT consultants CAP/Gemini, says that the capability for detailed monitoring has been available for years, but the will to use it is only now emerging. Managers need systems that evaluate the performance of staff who work from home or "hot desk" to enable them to know to whom to allocate tasks most effectively. This is especially true as more and more companies operate flattened hierarchies, removing the immediate link between employee and manager.

The growing recognition that some staff are misusing internet access to visit pornographic sites and to download images, is also persuading more employers that they need improved monitoring systems.

Neil Barrett, a research fellow with Bull Information Systems, advises companies to notify all staff that their activities on the web will be monitored. "They should know that if they download from whatever web site, that will be checked against their user ID," Mr Barrett suggests. "That will be enough to dissuade staff. From a legal point of view you are then partly carrying out your requirement to make sure staff are not doing what they are not allowed to do."

Ms Barber says that employers who use monitoring systems need to remember that co-operation with staff is more effective than bullying.

"The key thing in any staff relationship is that employees must feel they are getting a fair deal, and that depends on what benefit employees think there is for them in this," she says. "There must be some sort of trust - what we call a psychological contract."

Angela Edward, policy adviser with the Institute of Personnel and Development, argues that employers must be open, and not secretly introduce monitoring systems.

"A lot of the software packages today come with monitoring systems," she says. "Nothing you do on a computer is secure, even if you delete your e-mail it's hidden somewhere on the hard disk. If people are doing naughty things there are lots of ways to find out."