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Corporate IT teams have expressed discomfort towards the use of employee surveillance technologies at work, with both workers and managers highlighting its potential to hasten burnout, reduce morale and increase anxiety.
Since the start of the pandemic and the shift to more widespread remote working, many companies have turned to technology to maintain oversight and control of their workforces, which includes surveillance of their web activity, time spent in apps and programs, key and click logging, and both audio and video recordings of employees.
According to a survey conducted by digital employee experience company 1E and Wakefield Research, nearly nine in 10 (89%) of the 500 IT managers surveyed said they had first-hand experience of deploying these technologies, while four in five of the 500 IT workers (84%) said the same.
A further 83% of managers and 77% of workers noted that digital surveillance technologies are being deployed by their current employer to monitor productivity across the organisation, with the vast majority of both groups (87% and 84% respectively) seeing negative impacts since their company started doing so.
The negative impacts cited by IT teams include an increase in worker anxiety, employees losing trust in the leadership, employees quitting, difficulties in hiring new staff, quicker burnout rates and generally lower morale in the workplace.
“Most research and reporting on this issue to date has focused on the employees that companies spy on,” said 1E vice-president of brand and communications, Ian Greenleigh. “They’re more anxious and resentful, more likely to fake work, quit, and even steal workplace property. Yet, until now, the research has overlooked the perspective of those tasked with spying: IT workers and managers.
“It’s very likely that the perceived increase in productivity is actually an increase in presenteeism,” he added. “Other studies have shown that surveilled employees are more than two times more likely to pretend to be working, and spend an average of 67 minutes per day beyond their normal work hours so others see they are online. Acting productive and being productive are very different.”
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A 1E report about its findings further noted that “comfort varies greatly according to the specific surveillance technology used”, and that while many IT professionals are accepting of the need for business to monitor productivity, the sentiments shared show there are clear boundaries around what is deemed acceptable.
“They’re most comfortable with their company monitoring basic online behaviour such as web activity (58% of IT workers and 58% of IT managers) and logging time spent using various programs (57% of IT workers and 49% of IT managers),” it said. “However, they are more likely to see some proxy measures for productivity [like keylogging and video recordings] as overreach – an invasion of privacy that also has little business value.”
These negative impacts and the general levels of discomfort around productivity surveillance are also directly related to how transparent employers are being about their use of the technology.
“Nearly all IT managers (95%) and 89% of IT workers say transparency would increase their comfort … Yet, surprisingly, many aren’t seeing that level of transparency in action,” said the report.
“Of the IT managers whose current company uses EPST [employee productivity surveillance technology], nearly half (48%) say employees either weren’t informed that the technology is being used at all or were told it is being used but not how the surveillance is being conducted.”
Access to data
Nearly nine in 10 workers agreed that employees should have access to the same data held about them by their employer.
The report added that 27% of workers and 33% of managers would also raise concerns with the company’s leadership before deployment, with 5% and 8% respectively saying they would outright refuse to deploy the tech.
It further found that while more than two-thirds of IT workers (69%) and managers (67%) believe it’s appropriate for companies to monitor what employees are doing on company time, 73% of managers would not be comfortable instructing their own staff to deploy the technologies. A further 46% of workers said they would also not be comfortable with being asked to deploy the tech.
Around a third of both IT workers and managers said using digital technologies to monitor employee productivity is an invasion of privacy, and should not be used under any circumstances.
A further quarter of all workers and managers added that the technology’s ability to measure productivity is inaccurate because it doesn’t provide a full view of an employee’s work and contributions.
“Internal backlash could doom implementation from the start, as the vast majority of IT personnel would disclose its use to colleagues and offer workarounds even if it violated company policy,” said the report in its conclusion.
“With nearly half of IT managers who have been at their companies for five years or less viewing the technology as an invasion of privacy, the pushback appears likely to continue,” it said. “IT departments are now in a precarious position, and companies must decide whether the known risks of using productivity surveillance technology are worth the potential rewards.”
Right to disconnect
In February 2022, the World Health Organization and the International Labour Organization jointly called for enterprises and governments to place clear limits on workplace surveillance and support a right to disconnect, on the basis it would reduce the negative physical and mental health impacts of digitally enabled remote working practices.
The following month, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) warned that digital workplace surveillance is “spiralling out of control”, and could lead to widespread discrimination, work intensification and unfair treatment without stronger regulation to protect workers.
In mid-April 2023, the TUC reiterated this warning, and further warned that the UK government is failing to protect workers from being “exploited” by artificial intelligence technologies in the workplace, including those used for employee surveillance purposes.