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Right to disconnect and less monitoring key to better remote work

The World Health Organisation and International Labour Organisation warn against invasive workplace surveillance and promote right to disconnect in joint briefing on how to promote healthy and safe remote working

Enterprises and governments should place clear limits on invasive workplace surveillance and support workers’ “right to disconnect” to reduce the negative physical and mental health impacts of digitally enabled remote working practices, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) and the International Labour Organization (ILO).

In their joint technical brief on healthy and safe teleworking, the WHO and ILO said that although the increasing use of various digital technologies to support remote working has the potential to improve the work-life balance, promote flexible working hours and reduce time spent commuting, the negative impacts can be significant without proper planning and implementation.

The briefing warned, for example, that digitally enabled remote work can lead to isolation, burnout, depression, musculoskeletal and other injuries, and eye strain as a result of prolonged screen time.

“Teleworking and particularly hybrid working are here to stay and will likely increase after the pandemic, as both companies and individuals alike have experienced its feasibility and benefits,” said Vera Paquete-Perdigão, director of the ILO Governance and Tripartism Department.

“As we move away from this ‘holding pattern’ to settle into a new normal, we have the opportunity to embed new supportive policies, practices and norms to ensure millions of teleworkers have healthy, happy, productive and decent work.”

To alleviate and reduce the negative impacts, the briefing makes a number of practical recommendations for how remote working can be organised to meet the needs of both workers and enterprises.

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This includes employers discussing and creating individualised remote work plans with employees so there is clarity around timelines and expected results; making sure there is collective agreement on a common system that allows employees to signal availability for work; and ensuring that all managers respect the system.

“Teleworkers feeling pressured to be constantly ‘connected’ to their employer and co-workers can lead to many of the negative consequences of telework (for example, longer working hours and tension in balancing paid work and personal life commitments),” it said.

“Hence, in some countries, ‘the right to disconnect’ has been established, meaning the worker has the right to disengage from work and refrain from engaging in work-related electronic communications (for example, emails and text messages) during non-work hours.”

While the briefing did not explicitly call for governments to implement a right to disconnect – which has significant support from workers and trade unions in the UK – it added that “it is important to organise telework to meet the needs of both workers and the organisation; this requires a focus on outputs or outcomes rather than process”, and stressed that employers should actively avoid contacting workers outside of scheduled work hours.

Workers in Ireland have already had a right to disconnect enshrined in an official code of practice since April 2021, while the Scottish government announced its support for similar measures in December 2021.

The WHO and ILO briefing added that while various digital tools can be used to monitor workplace activity and set boundaries on work hours, these need to be kept confidential to ensure workers do not feel they are under constant surveillance.

“Employers should refrain from excessive monitoring or surveillance of workers, including the inappropriate use of software that monitors computer usage or activates constant online video capabilities. Such measures reduce trust and may increase stress for teleworkers,” it said.

Reducing risks

It added that this should all be underpinned by “arrangements for cooperation between employers and representatives of workers”, which will help to further reduce the risks associated with remote digital work.  

Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary at Prospect Union, welcomed the report and its recommendations. “There has been a dangerous rise in digital presenteeism and the use of surveillance software over the past two years, putting more pressure on workers to work longer hours and be ‘always-on’,” he said.

“This WHO report clearly recognises that we need to set new boundaries for digital technology, rather than allow a free-for-all on AI management and surveillance technology. This won’t be achieved if change is simply imposed on workers, which is why we are calling for government and employers to involve unions in negotiations about new working patterns.”

“If we want to make hybrid working successful and create opportunities for more people to benefit from genuinely flexible working patterns, then we need to ensure protections are in place to help people switch off from work and limit the ways employers can invade our private spaces,” said Pakes.

Philippa Collins, a lecturer in law at Bristol University who specialises in labour law, human rights and technology, has previously told Computer Weekly that human resources departments and other decision-makers should not take it for granted that deploying workplace monitoring technologies is inherently a good thing.

“More data means more [legal] risks, but also potentially less trust,” she said. “People under surveillance are not happy people, so you’d be risking a mass exodus.”

Employee consent

Collins said that although she agrees employees should be consulted, both generally and as data subjects for data protection impact assessments, organisations cannot simply rely on employee consent as their legal basis for using workplace monitoring technologies.

“It’s very clear that, because of the imbalance of bargaining power between workers and employers, an employer would not, as a data processor, be able to rely on the consent of their employees to process their data,” she said, adding that it is a common misconception that signing an employment contract automatically allows enterprises to process their workers’ data.

“If you’re that employer, you’re looking to be compliant, you’re looking to do this in a way that’s entirely legitimate,” said Collins. “Consultation would improve how you go about it – it would improve the logistics of it because you’d have employee buy-in, but you’d still want to be looking for another lawful basis to support your processing.”

While the briefing discusses the use of digital technologies to track workers, it only does so in relation to remote working, and does not distinguish between different types of work where different power relationships exist.  

Speaking during an online event about using workplace monitoring tech in June 2020, Gina Neff, associate professor at the Oxford Internet Institute and the Department of Sociology at the University of Oxford, said that while smartphones and other devices have long been viewed as an extension of white-collar workers’ professional identity, waged or hourly workers’ use of the same devices is often tightly controlled.

“We have to take these differences in class and trust in technology already in play into account,” she said. “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.”

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