Your boss is probably watching you, and Microsoft Recall just turned up the heat

Granting bosses the right to snoop on workers could cause major issues for staff – and should be avoided as AI encroaches on our lives.

Data-driven workplaces are all the rage. However, the preponderance of big data and a drive towards AI has caused a potent mix of issues that can impact workers negatively. Employers are increasingly turning to surveillance tools to track their workers, who are increasingly working from home or remotely. One 2023 survey by ExpressVPN suggested nearly four in five businesses were tracking staff digitally.

“As electronic surveillance systems continue to increase in both sophistication and prevalence, it is critical that policymakers take steps to ensure that their use in the workplace does not harm workers,” said Alexandra Givens, President and CEO of the Center for Democracy & Technology.

While more workers are comfortable than not comfortable about their engagement in the workplace being monitored, there is a significant proportion of those who feel it’s a problem – 25% of those surveyed by Forbes Advisor say it makes them somewhat or very uncomfortable to know that their actions could be tracked by an employer.

That level of comfort doesn’t mean much anyway, as in the same survey, more than four in 10 workers say their online activity was already monitored by bosses. But workplace surveillance is a growing concern – not just because of the discomfort it causes employees but also because of the knock-on effects it has on staff morale and the proper functioning of a business.

Knocking morale

Bosses often think that by integrating some form of workplace surveillance, they’re helping to improve the running of their business. Such systems can ensure that staff are working more efficiently and can identify issues before they become significant ones that affect the broader operations of an organization.

However, the Forbes Advisor survey suggests that – despite the best intentions – integrating surveillance systems on workers has the opposite effect.

When asked, 39% reported that their employer monitoring their online activity negatively impacts their relationship with their employer, while 43% said it negatively affects company morale to know they’re being tracked.

Integrating such systems into the workplace gives the impression that bosses don’t trust their workers or that they believe there’s something they need to be caught doing. This antagonises the relationship between both parties and can lead to a toxic work environment where employees feel constantly watched and unable to relax or be themselves.

Ethical concerns

Beyond the impact on morale and productivity, workplace surveillance also raises significant privacy and ethical concerns. Employees have a reasonable expectation of privacy, even in a professional setting, and constant monitoring through software can negatively affect that.

There are also questions about the extent to which employers should have access to personal information, such as browsing histories, private communications, or even biometric data like keystroke patterns or facial recognition. This data could be misused or fall into the wrong hands, putting employees at risk of identity theft, discrimination, or other forms of harm. For employers in the European Union who come under the auspices of the GDPR, that’s an even greater concern.

The recent arrival of AI-powered systems raises concerns about algorithmic bias and the potential for these systems to perpetuate or even amplify existing societal biases, leading to unfair treatment of certain groups of employees – all at the same time as tools like Microsoft Recall are increasing the volume of data that snoopers can call upon.

Striking a fair balance

The decision is difficult for bosses. While some level of monitoring may be necessary for legitimate business purposes, such as protecting sensitive data or ensuring compliance with company policies, there is a growing consensus that workplace surveillance has gone too far in many instances.

Striking the right balance between employer oversight and employee privacy and autonomy is crucial for maintaining a healthy and productive work environment. That may involve implementing clear policies and guidelines for the use of surveillance technologies, establishing robust data protection measures, and involving employees in the decision-making process.

But for executives looking to figure out how to move forward, ultimately fostering a culture of trust, transparency, and open communication between employers and employees is key. It might even prevent the need for surveillance tools in the first place.

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