Long Read: Can Facial Recognition Software Improve Remote Productivity?

Facial recognition software could provide data on how your people are spending their time. But will it erode trust and create a dynamic that is harmful to employee experience? Maybe its time to re-examine how we think about 'productivity'. 

Recently, an article on facial recognition software was doing the rounds on social media. The article itself is little more than advertorial by the purveyors of facial recognition software, and it may have disappeared quietly, were it not for the reaction it provoked online. Even the few comments on the article itself are filled with dissent and detraction.

Let’s try to understand why.

The author of the piece notes several worrying statistics around remote working: that 75% of remote workers have reported experiencing burnout, that 37% or workers are working longer hours than they did before, and that 22% of remote workers are finding it hard to switch off.

In the article, these statistics are said to lead to unhappiness, stress, a loss of productivity and reduced quality of work. Facial recognition software could then improve this: by monitoring employees at all times, companies will be able to see how they are spending their time; when they are working, when they are not, and gain insight and data on why that is.

Yet this article is also making some key assumptions: notably that remote workers are less productive, less happy, and more prone to burnout. But is this true?

Earlier this year, an article from Forbes found that remote working actually increased employee happiness by more than 20%, while other studies have shown that remote working has led to a rise in employee performance by 13% and an increase in productivity by up to 77%. 

Of course, it’s possible that all these statistics are true; perhaps they add up to a complete picture of employees working harder and longer, which is good for performance and productivity, but could very well lead to a strained work/life balance and, if left unchecked, burnout from employees.

But on closer inspection, none of these statistics seem to suggest what the article is implying – that remote working is directly leading to a loss of productivity. But even if they did, would facial recognition software help? What would it mean for employees, and for their relationship to their employers, to be under surveillance in their own homes?

How would monitoring people improve productivity?

To try and understand that, we’re going to need to stray a little bit off the beaten path of your usual HR-related content. 

The Panopticon

In the late 18th century, English philosopher and social theorist Jeremy Bentham developed an idea that would grow to become a symbol for modern authority and discipline in the western world: the Panopticon.

As Bentham envisioned it, the Panopticon would be the ideal prison – a structure that would allow the monitoring of the maximum number of prisoners with the fewest guards and lowest cost. It would consist of cells built in a circular structure – each one facing a central guard tower. Those in the tower would be able to see the entirety of any cell at any given time. The prisoners would always be visible – always vulnerable to being watched, always aware of the presence of authority.

The beauty of this, for Bentham, was that the authority would then be internalised: there may not be enough guards to watch every prisoner – there could, in fact, be nobody in the guard tower at all. But for the prisoners, they must always be aware that they could be watched, that they could be under surveillance. And in that way, the prisoners are forced to police themselves; forced to regulate their own behaviour.

Some 200 years after Bentham, French philosopher and noted prison enthusiast Michel Foucault observed that the Panopticon was not only a way to structure a prison, but society as a whole: that the idea of surveillance alone is enough to “constrain the convict to good behaviour, the worker to work, the schoolboy to application, the patient to observation of the regulations.”

The Effect of Surveillance on Employee Experience

Ok, so at this point, you might be questioning what any of this has to do with remote working, productivity, and HR. You may be thinking that I’m just someone desperately trying to wring some use and value from a dusty humanities degree (and you’d be right). But the point that both theorists were grasping at, is that even the threat of being watched is enough to produce a desired set of behaviours, a desired outcome.

So, from that perspective, the answer to the question of whether facial recognition software and other forms of digital surveillance will improve productivity should be a simple one: yes. People will probably do more work if they are being watched. Case closed.

But at the same time, alarm bells should be ringing in your head: no matter what Foucault might have thought, work is not a prison. Undoubtedly, the makers of facial recognition software are not envisaging the creation of a surveillance state for employees. They are not intending to recreate the Panopticon. Yet, the reaction to this article tells its own story, especially as it comes largely from people who are employees rather than employers.

With software like this, you risk making employees overly aware of authority, creating a power dynamic that isn’t necessarily conducive to a positive working environment. One where authority could always be looking in, could always be making judgement. One closer to Bentham’s idea of a prison than a modern workplace.

It is likely that, whether a business intends to or not, the use of this kind of technology sends a message that employees cannot be trusted, and that they cannot even trust themselves. Instead, they must regulate their own behaviour to reproduce the idea of a ‘good and productive worker’.

Is it possible to build a sustainable culture of high performance whilst also casting doubt in your employees’ minds about whether you trust them? More importantly, can productivity be boiled down to a set of good behaviours; an outcome that can only be accomplished by people aware that they are being watched?

If there is one thing we have learned over the course of the last few years of remote and hybrid working, it’s the importance of employee experience – and how things like freedom, autonomy and flexibility help employees to feel happy and valued, and indeed, more productive. It should not be a surprise that people who are trusted to perform tend to perform better.

Moreover, there is mounting evidence that being monitored makes people more anxious and more stressed, and studies have consistently shown the negative effects of stress on productivity. As it turns out, people don’t enjoy being watched. It is likely that few would produce their best work in those circumstances.

It’s possible that this software could lead to a workforce that works more but achieves less.

Yet concern over how time is being spent is integral to the promotion of this type of software, so it’s important to look again at the central thesis of this article: that remote workers need to be using their time more efficiently.

Are Remote Workers Using Their Time Efficiently?

It’s worth interrogating another of the assumptions the article makes with statistics: that 53% of workers spend up to 3 hours a day on non-work activities. This is presented as obviously a bad thing, implying a significant portion of the workday is lost to wasteful activities. But is this right? Firstly, it’s important to remember that people are not robots, and secondly, is the bulk of that time truly being wasted?

For one thing, there is growing evidence that taking multiple short breaks throughout the day is actually beneficial for workers, generally enabling people to be more productive than they would be if they worked without stopping.

This means that time spent every hour, not thinking about tasks or deadlines, is actually extremely valuable, helping people to recharge and refocus. Whether that’s making a cup of tea, chatting with a colleague, looking at a phone – it doesn’t matter. It can’t be quantified as ‘non-work’ time because it’s necessary to the healthy functioning of the person who must do the work.

The other thing that this statistic ignores is the value of personal relationships in the workplace and the impact they have on employee experience. Working remotely means that people are spending less time physically interacting with their teams, their colleagues, and their managers. Yet those interpersonal relationships are vital to both employee experience and productivity.

Nominally, managers might not enjoy that their employees have dedicated Teams chats where time is spent throughout the day talking about movies or personal lives but fostering these kinds of connections are crucial to employee wellbeing, and this impacts performance. Being trusted by management to be able to spend work time this way and still meet targets and deadlines can provide a major boost to workers – remote or otherwise.

Our survey from earlier this year highlighted just how crucial these relationships are, with employees three times more likely to go above and beyond for their employer when they had a good relationship with their manager.

As we found when previously analysing what makes employees go the extra mile, the link between engagement, experience, and productivity is clear. Fostering positive working relationships is vital, and it also takes time. You will not see the same results if you create an environment where employees might be fearful of building those types of relationships because they fall outside the boundaries of what is considered ‘productive work’.

How to Improve Remote Productivity

A few years ago, Deloitte, outlined the ‘Irresistible Organisation’, using the model created by Josh Bersin, author and CEO of Bersin & Associates. In this, they discuss the ways in which technology has created a workforce that is more autonomous than ever before and posited that a ‘new social contract was taking shape’.

In this way, a new set of rules were laid out to describe a truly irresistible organisation, one that employees would be ‘clamouring to work for’ and ‘unwilling to leave’ – the benefits of creating such an organisation can be seen in talent attraction and retention, employee productivity, and ultimately business profitability.

Bersin’s model is built on:

  • Meaningful work – where small, empowered teams work autonomously and in unstructured time
  • Supportive management – with clear and transparent goals and investment in development
  • A positive work environment – a humanistic workplace that is flexible, fair, and inclusive
  • Growth opportunities – with training, support, and self-directed learning
  • Trust in leadership – where there is transparency, honesty, and continuous investment in people

What this describes is essentially a workplace where employee experience is prioritised and seen as a key driver of productivity. It is a different model for the future of the workplace, one that has only become more appealing and important over the past few years of pandemics and uncertainty. One that leverages trust, support, and the strength of interpersonal relationships to boost employee performance and retention.  

It is still possible that facial recognition software could be applied in this manner; that it could play a role in shaping the irresistible organisations of the future. There’s potential for it to be used as part of a caring and holistic solution to improve employee experience: acting as an early warning signal, giving employers insight into employees’ moods or struggles before they impact performance. But for that to truly happen, we must dismiss outdated assumptions around wasted time. Away from mid-level management concerns around lost focus and inefficiency.

As more and more employees move into remote or hybrid working environments, the focus must turn to employee experience; the path towards increased productivity must be built on trust: empowering autonomy and flexibility above all. It must recognise the value of strong relationships in the workplace and not see the time spent cultivating those relationships as ‘unproductive’.

The irresistible organisation is one that truly values its people, as people. The technology that drives these organisations of the future  will be employee relationship platforms, not panoptic time-tracking solutions.

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