Employees overwhelmingly hostile to workplace monitoring tech

The use of workplace surveillance technologies to monitor and track staff working from home has increased hugely since the start of the pandemic, but most workers say it makes them feel uncomfortable

Enterprises should be wary of introducing workplace monitoring technology because it would make the vast majority of employees uncomfortable, according to a survey commissioned by science and research trade union Prospect.

With millions forced to work remotely from home due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many companies have turned to employee surveillance software to keep track of their staff’s activities while outside the office environment. In April, for example, global demand for these technologies shot up by 87%.

Prospect’s findings reveal that despite workers’ low levels of awareness about different monitoring technologies, two-thirds (66%) of workers said they would be uncomfortable with keystroke monitoring, four in five (80%) with camera monitoring, and three-quarters (76%) with electronic tracking.

A significant number said the use of these technologies would make them very uncomfortable – at 44%, 64% and 61%, respectively.

About half also felt that the introduction of workplace monitoring software would negatively impact their relationship with managers, which rose to 62% among younger staff aged 18 to 24.

“Having your every keystroke or app usage monitored by your boss while you are working in your own home may sound like a dystopia – but there are precious few controls in place to prevent it becoming a daily reality for millions of workers across Britain,” said Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy.

“Employers are beginning to think about how their workplace will operate in the future, including a far greater prevalence of blended working and exclusive working from home. As the new reality takes hold, we will see more and more debates about the use of technology to monitor workers. The evidence suggests the workforce are simply not ready for it.”

Clancy added: “The changes have been thrown into sharp relief by the new government advice advocating a further six months of remote working. If the government is going to tell workers to stay at home, then it needs to get serious about this issue by bringing businesses, unions and tech companies together to discuss what modern workers’ rights should look like in this new world of work.”

Speaking at a virtual panel about monitoring technologies in June, Andrew Pakes, director of communications and research at Prospect, said employees should be involved in the “design, construction, testing and implementation” of any technologies used to control or monitor their return to work, and should be consulted as part of an organisation’s data protection impact assessment (DPIA).

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“We would argue that, under Article 35 of the General Data Protection Regulation [GDPR], there should be consultation with data subjects and their representatives, and that consultation process – demonstrating that you have spoken to your workers and involved your unions – should happen before the technology is introduced,” he said.

“If you haven’t done the consultation as part of the DPIA, then you haven’t done a DPIA, and increasingly that’s going to become a contestable position.”

Speaking on the same panel, Gina Neff, associate professor at the Oxford Internet Institute, said workplace surveillance is different for white-collar workers – where smartphones and other devices have long been seen as an extension of their professional identity – and waged or hourly workers, for whom the use of such devices is often tightly controlled.

“We have to take these differences in class and trust in technology already in play into account,” said Neff. “Some of the tools and devices that I see being developed may sound great for highly motivated professional workers who feel altruistic in sharing their data, but they would absolutely be a nightmare in environments where people have already experienced tight digital control over their workloads.

“Privacy really has to be at the centre of the conversations we have about back-to-work technologies. There is no quick and easy technical panacea for solving the problems of back to work, but we absolutely know that if we don’t build tools and devices that allow people to be in charge and in control of their data, those won’t be effective.”

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Keeping tabs on employees in the hybrid workplace

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