Employees must be given the right to disconnect

As enterprises increasingly turn to workplace monitoring technologies and more of the workforce moves to remote or hybrid working, unions are campaigning for workers’ ‘right to disconnect’ and not engage in digitally enabled work after hours

According to a recent survey, one in five companies have turned to digital surveillance to keep tabs on their employees, or are planning to do so. We have seen a rush towards technology to keep us safe during Covid, but is there, as this evidence suggests, now a more sinister side that we need to talk about?

The transformative nature of technology is very real. In December 2019, 10 million people were using Zoom daily; by April, that had jumped to 300 million. Whether it is video-conferencing platforms, online collaboration tools or chat groups, our working worlds have been turned upside down by the need to support remote working. But, one year on from the first lockdown, we risk creating a new environment of surveillance that would undermine the benefits of flexibility.

This clash of opportunity and risk is not new. From the cotton mills to automated production lines, technology has always been changing the way we work. At least initially, these changes have often been imposed on workers with little consultation or consideration of the risks to safety or wellbeing. We must not repeat those mistakes.

For some employers, the move to remote working was accompanied by an intense anxiety about ensuring their workers were not slacking off without the pressure of their manager at the nearby desk. So, it is perhaps unsurprising that managers whose idea of productivity is being glued to your desk are turning to surveillance software to keep an eye on their workforce – measuring keystrokes, time on calls, emails sent, and so on.

Into this space stepped a range of companies offering “productivity monitoring” products to show employers what their workers are doing, when and at what speed, in real time. The names of some of these companies could come straight from the pages of a dystopian novel: StaffCop, Sneak, SpyAgent. Even Microsoft got caught up in the race and included a productivity tool in Office 365 software before thinking again after unions and others sounded the alarm. If technology was blurring the line between home and work before Covid, that line has now gone.

Almost as scary as the technology itself is the fact that most workers are largely unaware that it exists. Polling that Prospect commissioned near the start of the pandemic demonstrated that only about one-third were aware of technology such as keystroke monitoring, with a large majority reporting they would feel uncomfortable being monitored by this technology.

The risks for workers are very real. First, there is the risk to workers’ privacy, especially those working in cramped conditions. Being checked up on in the office is bad enough, but when you are working in your bedroom, that sense of the intrusion of your work into your private life is inescapable.

The last year has taught us that privacy is both a changing concept and a collective one, yet too much of the discussion around privacy is about individual data rights. If we are being monitored as a group, especially on such a widespread basis, this is a collective issue.

Related to that is the impact on mental health, stress, and the always-on culture. We may be able to work almost anywhere at any time, but the danger is that we end up working everywhere, all the time. For example, knowing that email response times are monitored as part of your “productivity score” will put huge pressure on workers to be constantly connected and available.

Harder to switch off

We are now seeing evidence of the strain that remote working has put on us. More than half of us say we are finding it harder to switch off from work while home working, and we are working 2.5 hours longer on average during lockdown and taking shorter lunch breaks.

There is also a risk that this technology becomes a substitute for actual management of employees. There are a number of aspects to this, such as whether the algorithms used in this software contain in-built biases that discriminate against some groups of workers, whether these “scores” can be challenged by workers, and whether it is ever really appropriate to have life-altering decisions such as hiring or promotion made on the basis of scores allocated by monitoring software.

Trade unions like Prospect now consider data rights to be new “health and safety” rules. There is a new battle line in employment rights that is about the datafication of work – how our data is collected, monitored, used and sold to make decisions about us. This is part of our wider campaign, alongside unions worldwide, for a right to disconnect challenging not just the intrusive nature of technology, but also hidden overtime and pressure to be on duty for longer hours.

Many countries have already passed laws setting a framework for employers and unions to set rules to allow workers to switch off and take a break and companies, such as Telefonica, have agreed company-wide “right to disconnect” agreements with unions.

Prospect has called for the Information Commissioner’s Office to update its Employment Practices Code to make sure workers are informed and involved when our data is being used to manage us. The UK’s data protection rules make it clear that we should be consulted, but this does not always happen.

Just as unions trained our workplace reps to negotiate safer workplaces, we are now training them to talk to their employers about data and surveillance. Next month, we will be (virtually) bringing together our first cohort of worker representatives to train them on bargaining for data rights.

With an Employment Bill due in the coming months, it is time for a serious debate about how to make sure that our employment rights keep pace with new developments and that the very technology that could herald a new age of freedom and flexibility for workers does not end up being used to further entrench the worst employment practices of the past.

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