Is surveillance the solution to a better connection with staff?

7 May 2021 | Applicable law: England and Wales

I’m sure I’m not alone when I say that one of the biggest challenges of lockdown was how to stay connected to family, friends and colleagues. At work, we all had a part to play in keeping in touch with our colleagues, checking in on their well-being, keeping one other motivated and inventing novel ways to work together.

As employers start planning for the future of work, there is a general expectation that most employees will prefer to work remotely for all or part of the working week, on a permanent basis, aka ‘hybrid working’. The challenge of staying connected will therefore continue. Business leaders will need to think creatively about how best to manage such flexible arrangements so they can continue to motivate, train and supervise staff and maintain a positive work culture, with staff wellbeing, collaboration and productivity also high on the agenda.

Some employers are asking whether surveillance technology has a part to play in their planning. This is a grey area which needs careful thought. We all have a right to a degree of privacy, even in the office, but where do we draw the line now that for many our homes have become our workplace? The boundaries are even more blurred.

Surveillance and monitoring is not a new issue. Rather, the technology has developed to allow more innovative ways to survey, monitor and track employees. Some employers see software surveillance products as a means to provide better insight into work patterns and productivity, but what do their employees think? For many, the idea of cameras and scanning software installed on home computers to monitor employee whereabouts and measure productivity is a step too far, an invasion of privacy and overstepping personal boundaries. Is there a half-way house that works for employer and employee, with employers having clear policies about their rationale for taking such steps, what information they plan to capture, how and by whom it will be handled, and reassuring staff that data processing will comply with the General Data Protection Regulation?

Recent examples show the limitations on employers trying to stay connected with their employees in this way, calling into question whether surveillance does more harm than good. In 2020, Barclays faced a backlash from employees when it upgraded the Sapience software in its banking investment division, to track staff movements and how they spent their time at work, sending warnings to staff who spent too long on breaks. The pilot system was swiftly scrapped following staff complaints and Barclays was investigated by Britain’s privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office, to see if they had breached privacy laws.

In March this year, the French company, Teleperformance, came under fire for introducing software in its call centres which it states is for collaboration purposes (meetings, training sessions, scheduled calls) but staff felt was too much like ‘big brother’. In short the surveillance kit monitors and tracks real time behaviour and detects any violations to pre-set business rules. Too much time away from the computer is logged and reported to the employee’s manager. Another feature is a home webcam which recognises the user’s face, tags their location and scans for breaches of rules at random times during the day. A photo is then taken and stored as evidence of a breach of the rules. Whilst its purpose may be to stay better connected to its employees, not surprisingly it has been widely reported that staff feel they are being spied on. To have your employer see into your bedroom, kitchen or study on a scheduled zoom call is one thing (something most of us have got used to over the last 12 months) but to have a camera fitted to allow for random checks is not the same.

Some employers will already routinely monitor Internet use and intercept employee emails when appropriate to do so, in line with their company polices. They may already have software in place to track the date, time, duration and names of Internet sites visited, the number of clicks on each site and the total time spent Internet browsing. Other employers, where justified, might go a step further and use software to track unusual behaviour and/or possible misconduct, to assist in the investigation of disputes (such as customer complaints in call centres), or to comply with legal or regulatory obligations. If these measures are already in place, and employees are used to them, is additional surveillance needed to achieve anything of value? Will it improve connectivity or instil a culture of mistrust? Is it to increase presenteeism, to have more control over employees’ working time and other behaviour, or to improve management and communications? Could it help motivate less motivated employees? Is it justified as a way of checking in on the well-being of your staff? Or is the real purpose to keep a better eye on staff to make sure they are not taking advantage of not being in the office and under more direct supervision? Employers will need to weigh up the negatives and the positives and ultimately have answers for employees who will question the true motives for introducing more intrusive software.

There is little doubt that although increased employee surveillance may have a role to play in some sectors, most employees will say they feel less trusted and unnecessarily managed if it is introduced. In a year when many employees have been trusted to get on with their jobs, employers will want to strike a balance so as not to undermine that trust whilst effectively staying connected with their employees.

This document (and any information accessed through links in this document) is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from any action as a result of the contents of this document.


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