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One in five tech workers subject to workplace surveillance

Digital surveillance is now a common feature of the UK’s post-pandemic economy, says Prospect Union, adding to growing calls for workers to be given a greater say over how technologies are deployed in the workplace

One in five tech workers are subject to workplace surveillance software which is being used to monitor their activity across in-office, hybrid and remote settings, a Prospect Union survey has found.

The union, which represents specialist technology workers, said the results of its snapshot survey highlight the extent to which digital surveillance of the workplace has become a feature of the UK’s post-pandemic economy.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic and the rise of remote and hybrid working, many enterprises have started using monitoring software to keep an eye on their employees working from home.

Many of the digital monitoring tools available today allow enterprises to see a range of information about their employees’ activities, from recording their keystrokes and mouse clicks to tracking their physical location and use of applications or websites.

Using these and a variety of other information, the software can help enterprises to conduct predictive and behavioural analytics, enabling managers to understand and track how productive employees are over time. It can also be used to feed algorithms with human resource functions, including hiring and firing.

A major part of the problem, said Prospect, was that workers themselves are being kept in the dark about how the surveillance software monitoring them works.

For example, only 11% of survey respondents – which include both union and non-union members – said they were “very sure” what data their employer was collecting about them and why. Just over two in five were “somewhat” or “very” unsure what data their employer was gathering on them or how it was being used.

A significant majority (69%) said they would like to see their employer do more to support the development and deployment of responsible technology.

“The rise of monitoring software is one of the untold stories of the Covid pandemic,” said Andrew Pakes, deputy general secretary of Prospect Union. “Growing surveillance at work has quickly become a mainstream work issue facing people across all industries.

“Digital technology means we can now work almost anywhere, but it also means our work can follow us everywhere. The fact that this surveillance is affecting tech workers shows the extent to which digital technology is changing how we are managed and work.

“The survey highlights the need to update employment rights now to cover data use and monitoring technologies. We would encourage anyone worried about surveillance or monitoring to contact their union representative or to join a union.”

A similar survey of employers conducted by YouGov in November 2020 found that, at that point, 20% of UK businesses were already using, or planning to use, employee monitoring software. It also noted that the practice was more prevalent in larger companies.

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Prospect’s survey also identified a number of other trends, including that workers who are not a member of a union are more likely to be being monitored than those who are; and that, because of the increasing prevalence of remote working from home for these tech workers, only a quarter said they are “always” able to switch off outside of working hours.

Research from Ipsos published in March 2022 found that six in 10 UK adults are in favour of establishing a legal “right to disconnect”, which would allow employees to ignore work-related communications such as emails and texts outside their contracted working hours. Advocates say a legal right to disconnect would make it easier for people to switch off from work, especially in the context of increased working from home.

In February 2022, Prospect published guidance to help workers negotiate with employers about the use of various digital technologies in the workplace, putting particular emphasis on the need for unions to establish collective bargaining over how technology is deployed.

To deal with the widening power imbalances between employers and employees created by the deployment of digital monitoring software, Prospect’s guidance outlined four “pillars” that can help establish workers’ voice as regards workplace technologies – consultation, negotiation, challenge and organising.

Key to each of these pillars is the need for collective bargaining agreements around the use of data and digital technologies, which will enable their use in the workplace to be scrutinised and challenged effectively.

In March 2022, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) said the intrusive and increasing use of surveillance technology in the workplace – often powered by artificial intelligence (AI) – was “spiralling out of control”, and it pushed for workers to be consulted on the implementation of new technologies at work.

In response to a survey conducted on behalf of the TUC by Britain Thinks, 60% of workers said they had been subject to some form of surveillance or monitoring by their employer, with three in 10 agreeing that these practices had increased since the pandemic began.

According to a parliamentary inquiry into AI-powered workplace surveillance – the All-Party Parliamentary Group for the Future of Work – which concluded in November 2021, AI is being used to monitor and control workers with little accountability or transparency. This prompted the inquiry to call for the creation of an Accountability for Algorithms Act.

“AI offers invaluable opportunities to create new work and improve the quality of work if it is designed and deployed with this as an objective,” said an accompanying report. “However, we find that this potential is not currently being materialised.

“Instead, a growing body of evidence points to significant negative impacts on the conditions and quality of work across the country. Pervasive monitoring and target-setting technologies, in particular, are associated with pronounced negative impacts on mental and physical wellbeing as workers experience the extreme pressure of constant, real-time micro-management and automated assessment.”

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