Is Employee Surveillance Increasing Beyond the Workplace?

When we think of surveillance, we think of the little CCTV camera in the corner of the office. We are all aware that it is there, constantly watching the room and deterring any potential thieves. We accept that it isn’t doing anything to disrupt our work and, for the most part, we ignore it. But what happens when that little camera is directly pointed at you with the sole purpose of collecting data on everything you do? What about when the camera is no longer restricted to your office building, but in your own home?

Workplace surveillance has significantly increased over the last two years. It is a concept that has been widely debated even before the events of the coronavirus pandemic, but following the great shift to remote working, the use of surveillance tools has spread beyond the walls of workplace setting, including sectors that traditionally did not require high levels of supervision.

The most common reasoning for workplace monitoring during the pandemic was to help staff keep in touch whilst also keeping an eye on employees that were potentially neglecting their responsibilities whilst working from home. Even though lockdown did not actually appear to have had much of an effect on output or productivity, some companies have placed greater focus on what their staff get up to when they are not under supervision.

Most recently, e-commerce giant Amazon have been in the news over their controversial usage of tracking their workers. The collection of surveillance data goes as far as a minute-by-minute report of staff daily routines, with a disciplinary written up for spending too long going to the bathroom or for going to the wrong floor of a warehouse. The report paints a rather bleak picture of a dystopian work practice, one which may or may not be contributing to the high turnover of workers within the company.

In some sectors, the use of employee surveillance is tantamount to the security of its client data, where the risk of a disgruntled employee can potentially do some ‘real damage’. In these cases, companies make it a requirement for employees to download software onto their work devices that keeps track of their performance. The software might also take into account the worker’s hours, websites visited, mouse movements and even the number of keystrokes within a specified time frame.

The whole methodology of workplace surveillance can be a micromanaging nightmare, offering very little benefit to all parties involved. First of all, someone has to be put in charge of monitoring the performance of every single employee. Software programs will keep a record of computer usage, but someone still has to review the gathered information, taking time away from engaging in more important tasks.

There is also the wellbeing of employees to consider. For some employees, the anxiety of having someone spying on their every move can be distracting and may be enough to drive them out of the company. The lack of privacy, particularly in their own homes, can lead to a sense of distrust and may have negative repercussions further down the line.

Firms that are considering the use of monitoring software should think very carefully on how and why it is being used. Staff should be made aware that they will be monitored and a written policy should be in place so that to alleviate any concerns. The Data Protection Act does not prevent employers from monitoring their workers, however it is important that workers are entitled to a certain level privacy whilst at work. There should also be clear guidance for managers and safeguards in place to prevent misuse or ‘over-monitoring’.

Any measurement of productivity must be proportionate to the tasks carried out by the employee. Recording the number of keystrokes or how many times a person moves a mouse is irrelevant for certain job roles and would potentially place individuals at a disadvantage to their peers. Focusing on improving communication and providing support for employees is more likely to have better results.

About the author

Jessica joined RWA in 2018, having graduated with a First Class Honours degree in Film Studies. Her role as a content designer involves developing new and engaging e-learning modules as well as assisting in the creation of articles for Insight. 

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