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How to oversee remote working while respecting their privacy

Kirstin Gillon explores the privacy issues surrounding corporate interest in digital surveillance as a way to boost productivity in employees working from home.

In November 2020, Microsoft announced a new feature in its 365 Suite called Productivity Score. This collected and analysed data about how employees were using its tools – for example, on how many days in a week 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. In the end, Microsoft amended the tool so that it showed only aggregated data, not individual profiles. However, the argument highlighted growing concerns about what activities it is legitimate for employers to monitor in their workforce.

Growth of employee monitoring

Of course, employee monitoring or surveillance isn’t new. Employers have been measuring and tracking what employees do for many years. Timesheets are the bedrock of working practices in professional services.

Monitoring has increasingly been digitised over the years through a mix of technologies. The location of staff can now be tracked through the use of GPS or cameras. Tracking internet usage on employer devices has become standard practice, blocking access to some sites and monitoring sites that are visited. Financial services companies have long been monitoring email content, for anti-fraud and compliance purposes.

This trend has been supercharged by the pandemic and the shift to homeworking. The reliance on tech for all activities has opened up new opportunities to monitor what staff are doing, sometimes fuelled by a distrust of homeworking and questions over whether employees are doing their job when they can’t be seen by managers. 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 that use techniques such as keystroke logging or cameras to monitor employees much more extensively. 

Benefits of monitoring

Monitoring employees can have a number of benefits. Most obviously, it can help to improve productivity. It is argued that people are more likely to work hard and not engage in time-wasting activities when they know they are being watched in some way. The data can be used for process improvement activities – for example, identifying any bottlenecks in processes. It can also help organisations to improve their use of digital tools by understanding trends and their employees’ usage patterns.  

Another advantage is that monitoring can be used for performance management purposes, to reward strong performers and identify where individuals are not doing their jobs properly. Good monitoring may help to spot where employees are experiencing difficulties, particularly when they are working at home. It can enable better distribution of work between team members. These tools can also form important elements of cyber security and anti-fraud activities.

Potential impact on staff

However, monitoring carries significant risks. Knowing that you’re being monitored can have detrimental effects on people. It can add stress, reduce the trust between employer and employee and lower employee morale. These factors can have an immediate impact on productivity as well as increase employee turnover. 

It may encourage people to game the system, thereby spending time and energy trying to avoid the monitoring. 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 as a result. These kinds of responses to monitoring can potentially reduce productivity, creativity or innovation. 

Privacy rights

While monitoring can be perfectly legitimate, there are limits. Intrusive tracking and surveillance can also be a breach of privacy rights. Employers need to look closely at their legal position, especially in the light of General Data Protection Regulation, 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, the 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 its 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 homeworking, 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. 

Getting the balance right

How can employers best balance these different elements? First, there is a need to be clear about what data is being collected and how it will be used. Making sense of all this data will take time, and therefore managers will need to be realistic about what insights they can get from it. In many cases, aggregation of data and analysis of trends will be more useful than looking at the activities of individuals. It may be better to focus on outputs and results rather than the specific activities of staff. Having this clarity will help employers to be transparent with staff about how and why they are being monitored. Communication should be upfront and clear, not buried in an HR policy that no one reads.

Second, employers must consider the potential impact on staff of proposed monitoring, especially in a homeworking environment. Doing things that could result in employees being more stressed, or intrude into their personal lives, could well be counterproductive in terms of performance or long-term retention. There are also risks of bias and unfairness when monitoring focuses on particular groups, such as more junior or lower-paid staff. Singling out groups, which may well have high proportions of young, female or black 
or ethnic minority groups, can be problematic. 

Third, employers need to think in terms of culture. The real issues around intrusive monitoring occur when there is a lack of trust between employees and management. Is the monitoring being done because management doesn’t trust employees to be working hard, especially when they can’t be seen? Building the right culture, whereby employees are trusted, is important. It can also help to think in terms of rewards, not just punishment. If monitoring is purely used as a stick, it’s likely to be viewed negatively by staff. 

Finally, learn from experience, especially with some of these new tools, and amend practices where needed. Listening to concerns and practical experience can help to build trust in the tools.

About the author

Kirstin Gillon, Technical Manager, Tech Faculty