- Justin Parkinson
- The BBC News
Electronic monitoring of employees in home offices has grown, according to a survey in the UK – as the government has been urged to tighten rules and ban the use of webcams.
When the first lockdown began in England, in 2020, engineer Chris (not his real name to protect his identity) sent most of his team home.
In order for them to continue with their high-tech operations, it was a matter of connecting laptops and PCs to the machines in the office, which were much more powerful.
At the time, says Chris, “we don’t care.” Until one day he visited the office and saw each of his colleagues’ screens displayed there while they worked from home.
“Not one of the managers was just looking at our work,” Chris says. “He could see exactly what we were doing, the whole time – what we were watching on YouTube, that kind of thing.”
“It was a sinister thing,” he continues. “The manager was looking at our PC (screen) to monitor what we were doing from home, not just when we were working. It was weird.”
The technology used by Chris’ bosses, prior to the pandemic, was confined to the workplace, to monitor the actions of employees. They range from cameras that record employees in their cubicles to motion sensors and recorders that record mouse and keyboard touches.
As the pandemic progresses and home office practices have progressed, UK Prospect has called for stricter regulatory standards around the use of employee monitoring technology.
The union is also urging the government to make the explicit use of webcams illegal for employers to monitor home office employees unless they are in meetings or on virtual calls.
A survey of 2,400 British workers indicates that 32% of UK respondents are currently being monitored by their companies, an increase of 8 percentage points from April. The highest percentage (48%) is among workers between the ages of 18 and 34.
The proportion of people monitored by cameras indoors has more than doubled, from 5% to 13% since April.
“We are used to the idea of employers screening workers, but when people work from home, it takes on a whole new dimension,” says union general secretary Mike Clancy.
“New technologies allow employers to open a permanent window into the homes of their employees, and the use of this technology is not regulated by the government.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), the agency responsible for this issue, recommends that employers make clear to their teams when they will be monitored—whether at home or in the office—before monitoring begins. The reasons for monitoring should also be explicitly specified.
The ICO asks employers to consider the potential negative effects of monitoring their employees and evaluate less intrusive tools, and asks employees to report their activities via email or phone.
Chris, who changed his job after learning that his activities at home are being monitored by the company, sees “excessive” monitoring as counterproductive.
“My productivity didn’t drop when I started working from home,” he says.
“(But) I became more nervous when I heard what was going on (referring to monitoring). A lot of the time, my job is to display things on paper, away from the screen, so someone simply looking isn’t recording it. What I’m doing on the desktop. Maybe. That person (who’s watching) thought I went to watch Netflix or something, but I didn’t. It’s a very obtuse and impersonal way of trying to make sure people behave the way the company wants.”
Increased monitoring “adds stress” to employees, says Anna Thomas, director of the Center for the Study of the Future of Work Institute.
But companies that use this type of technology argue that they are acting reasonably at a time when many employees are out of sight of their supervisors.
Official polls show that after some measures to combat Covid-19 are relaxed, fewer Britons are working exclusively at home or on hybrid schemes than at the start of the pandemic. But nonetheless, many are following along in the home office.
The government proposed in November that people have the right to flexible work once they start a new job.
“People are expected to be able to keep their personal lives private and to have the right to a certain degree of privacy in the workplace,” an ICO spokesperson said at the time.
“We are currently updating our hiring practices to address changes in data protection laws and to reflect new ways employers use technology and interact with their teams.
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