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My eldest son started secondary school in September.

Last week we got a letter from the school giving us login details for a pupil monitoring website and associated smartphone app.

It’s quite a clever thing.

You can log in, check your child has attended lessons and see what homework is pending or has been submitted. You can also see positive and negative ‘behaviour’ points awarded by teachers, plus comments of praise and presumably criticism.

My son also has access to a version of the app, which gives him pretty much the same information – although he can mark homework as being completed or submitted.

I had reservations about the system to begin with. I thought back to my own schooldays. By the time I was 14 I loathed being at a school that seemed to be operating 30 years in the past. If I disliked a teacher I’d rarely do their homework. I also became an expert truant.

If my parents had access to an app that monitored my attendance, behaviour and homework, I reckoned I would have had as miserable a time at home as I did at school!

That said, I can see lots of benefits to the system that my son’s school use. When he comes home I can congratulate him on the positive comments made by his teachers. I know what homework he’s doing, so I can ask if he needs any help with it. And because I can log in during the school day, I can see that he is in lessons and is safe.

I think the system’s success hinges on two things. First, it encourages pupils to achieve as many positive behaviour points as they can – it’s a sort of game. Secondly, because pupils can access the system via their own app, it gets their buy-in.

It got me thinking how surveillance and tracking is used in the workplace. I know some people who work from home but whose employers track the amount of time they spend working on their laptop. They all find it intrusive.

On the other hand, I have encountered firms that have introduced tracking devices in their vehicles which monitor speed, acceleration, braking and similar variables. The idea is to encourage safer driving that uses less fuel – and is thus both cheaper and good for the environment.

The reason these systems work is because each employee has access to an app that shows them how they are performing. The employer normally offers a monthly prize to the person who achieves the safest and most fuel efficient driving style. In other words, they have created a competitive game that rewards positive behaviour.

And that, I think, is key to making employee surveillance work well. If employees are motivated by it and rewarded for their achievements, then it becomes a positive asset to your business. On the other hand, if workers feel they are being monitored and watched but have no say or input into how or why it is done, then it can backfire – particularly by eroding staff morale.

So, to answer my original question, I think that smart businesses these days don’t ask how closely they should monitor their employees. Instead they look for ways of monitoring that bring benefits to workers as well as to their business.

And who knows – perhaps I’d have done better at school if the system used by my son’s school was available back in the late 1980s!

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About Ben Locker

Ben Locker is a copywriter who specialises in business-to-business marketing, writing about everything from software and accountancy to construction and power tools. He co-founded the Professional Copywriters’ Network, the UK’s association for commercial writers, and is named in Direct Marketing Association research as ‘one of the copywriters who copywriters rate’.

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