Tracking remote staff

Calls for regulators to control employers' powers

Tracking remote staff

With remote work conditions still firmly in place at many companies in the wake of COVID-19, many businesses are using monitoring tools to track their staff.

The use of new technologies to monitor workers has become so prevalent that regulators in the UK and US are facing growing calls to restrict employers’ power to track their staff, according to a report by Australian Reseller News.

“We have seen a significant increase of interest in employee monitoring technology throughout the pandemic,” said Helen Poitevin, a Gartner vice president and analyst focusing on human capital technologies. “This continues as organisations plan for hybrid work environments, with employees working more flexibly from home and at the office.”

Andrew Pakes, director of communications and research at UK union Prospect, told ARN that technology has largely outstripped current employment and equality legislation. He called for a “new set of data rights fit for the digital age” to update outdated employment regulations keyed to workers in physical workplaces.

“We’re moving to an era where work is going to be defined much more by data use and cloud-based digital risks, and we need to reassess our rights in that space,” Pakes said.

While employers have long been able to monitor workers’ communications and browser histories, such monitoring has become more commonplace since the advent of COVID-19, ARN reported. Some businesses have also deployed productivity monitoring tools to find out what employees are doing while they work from home. An October survey by Opinium on behalf of Prospect found that 32% of workers are being monitored at their jobs, up from 24% in April.

“The growth of monitoring software has gone from a peripheral issue three or four year ago to a mainstream work issue facing people across all industries and all job types,” Pakes told ARN.

Pakes said that traditional workplace monitoring involved managers being able to look across their office and see what their workers were doing.

“A big change now is, with hybrid work … this level of work control is coming into our private lives and into our homes,” he said. “That adds a different level of pressure and stress on people.”

A recent survey by the Australian Institute found that 39% of employees were aware they were being monitored at work. However, that’s far below the 69% of HR decision-makers and IT decision-makers who said their companies were monitoring employees, suggesting a lack of transparency in businesses, ARN reported.

“That led us to think that … where monitoring is happening, it isn’t really talked about or communicated to the employees,” Kevin Strohmeyer, senior director of product management, workspace services, at software vendor VMware told the publication. “That’s a red flag for issues around transparency and trust.”

Employees often resist the idea of employer monitoring, although they’re less resistant when they are consulted and given a clear reason, ARN reported. The Prospect/Opinium survey found that 52% of respondents said employers should not be able to use webcams, and only 8% said employers should be able to utilize webcams in any way they see fit. Twenty-eight percent said webcam monitoring was acceptable in some cases, such as during meetings or when they are notified about it prior to use.

Poitevin told ARN that the use of monitoring technologies didn’t have to be problematic, when done with due consideration. There are many reasons for employers to track worker activity, such as safety issues or to protect highly sensitive data, she said.

“Some organisations deploy these tools because they don’t trust their employees are working,” she said. “Others deploy them because they want to make sure employees can work effectively, can be productive, and are not negatively impacting their wellbeing by working too much or becoming isolated. Those using them with an aim to improve employee experience and wellbeing may be able to find value in these tools – as long as the purpose and use of the collected data is clear to employees.”

Still, the use of monitoring tools can have a detrimental effect on employee satisfaction. A recent survey found that businesses that implement or plan to implement monitoring tools have a much higher turnover rate (41%) than those with no plans to monitor employees (23%).

“Organisations that deploy these tools to verify people are working will continue to erode trust,” Poitevin told ARN. “Here, the risks far outweigh the benefits.”

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