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Hybrid working and employee monitoring: what to be aware of

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 26 May 2021

Kirstin Gillon explores how to balance productivity and privacy with employee monitoring in the new hybrid workplace.

The past year has transformed the workplace. Employees and employers had to adapt quickly to remote working due to COVID-19 but after almost a year and a half, it’s clear that many employers want to seek out the benefits of hybrid working in a post-pandemic landscape.

Research by the BBC found that 43 of the top 50 employers in the UK are going to combine home and office working as lockdown restrictions ease. 

However, with an increasingly flexible workplace comes the issue of tracking what work is done, who is completing what and who has capacity to take on more. 

So, how can employee monitoring help employers navigate the new hybrid working format, and what do employers need to be careful of? 

Bad reputation

Employee monitoring has a bad reputation. 

In November 2020, Microsoft announced a new feature in its 365 Suite called a Productivity Score. This collected and analysed data about how employees were using its tools, for example, on how many days in a week that employees sent emails or used the chat function. 

This data fed into an individual’s Productivity Score, which in turn resulted in a storm of protest about the growth of employee surveillance.

Microsoft eventually amended the tool so it reported aggregated data rather than individual profiles, but the concerns about employer intrusion were already solidified. 

In reality, employee monitoring and surveillance aren’t new developments. Employers have been tracking employees for years – for example, with timesheets or blocking access to certain websites. 

But with the shift to tech for all activities thanks to the pandemic, new opportunities have opened up to monitor staff. Platforms such as Microsoft 365 provide a range of tools to monitor how they are being used. 

There have also been many new cloud-based tools, which use techniques such as keystroke logging or cameras to monitor employees much more extensively.

Sticking points 

It’s true there are some issues with employee monitoring. 

Knowing you’re being monitored can have a detrimental effect on employees. It can add stress, reduce trust and lower employee morale. These factors can have an immediate impact on productivity as well as increase employee turnover.

It can also result in a ‘chilling’ of activities, whereby people are discouraged from saying or doing things when they’re being monitored because they’re worried about what others might say. These kinds of responses to monitoring can potentially reduce productivity, creativity or innovation.

There is also the issue of privacy. 

While monitoring can be legitimate, there are limits and employers need to look closely at their legal position, especially in the light of GDPR, and ensure that any data gathering and use complies with the law. 

In 2020, the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) investigated the use of a monitoring tool by Barclays, which tracked how long staff were away from their desks. 

In response to the case, an ICO spokesperson said: “People expect that they can keep their personal lives private and that they are also entitled to a degree of privacy in the workplace. 

“If organisations wish to monitor their employees, they should be clear about their purpose and that it brings real benefits. Organisations also need to make employees aware of the nature, extent and reasons for any monitoring.”

These issues have been complicated by the growth of home and hybrid working, where employees may be using more of their own devices for work purposes or using work devices for some personal tasks. 

This has increasingly blurred the line between work and home, especially when employees are working non-standard hours to accommodate caring or home-schooling duties. What is legitimate to monitor, and when, has become a trickier question.

Positive use 

However, monitoring can be useful – especially in a hybrid work context – and it doesn’t have to be sinister. 

It is generally argued that people are more likely to be more productive when they know they are being watched in some way.

But beyond employee behaviour, monitoring can also boost productivity by being used in process-improvement activities, to identify bottlenecks in processes. It can also help organisations improve their use of digital tools by understanding trends and usage patterns by employees. 

The tools can enable better distribution of work between team members and can track if some are being over or underloaded – which is particularly hard to notice when working remotely.

They can be used to dish out rewards, rather than just punishment, which makes it less likely to be viewed negatively by staff.

Employers can also look at when people have been sending emails – if it’s regularly when employees aren’t meant to be working – and if new colleagues are integrating well into a team by looking at their engagement on chat software. 

Monitoring can also be important elements of cybersecurity and anti-fraud activities, which will be important in a hybrid working environment when people split their time between secure office networks and more vulnerable home networks. 

Importance of trust 

But the real issues around intrusive monitoring come where there is a lack of trust between employees and management. 

If monitoring is being done because management doesn’t trust employees to be working hard, especially when they can’t be seen, then building the right culture whereby employees are trusted is important. This will be valuable for increasing a productive and creative workplace. 

Ultimately, employers should be willing to adapt where needed. Hybrid working will be a new normal for many, and it might take a few tries to get it right. 

Listening to the concerns and experiences of their employees can help cultivate a trusting relationship and better support their workforce through this change.