Worker surveillance is on the rise

As workers return to the office, the use of monitoring software continues to rise.

As COVID-19 took hold and staff were sent to work from home, organizations grappled with how to keep tabs on their workers.

The answer for many was employee monitoring software. Once installed, this allows an employer to track their workers' activity, log keystrokes, and take regular screenshots of what they're doing.

Indeed, in a Trades Union Congress (TUC) survey published in November 2020, more than one in seven UK workers polled said that monitoring and surveillance at work had increased since the start of the pandemic.

More than a quarter said their work communication was being screened, while 13 percent had their desktop monitored. One in twelve said their social media was being checked.

Meanwhile, in the US, says Top10VPN, demand for employee surveillance software shot up by 80 percent in March 2020 compared to the 2019 monthly average.

Worker surveillance is increasing outside the office too, with Amazon, for example, recently reported to be widening its use of AI-equipped cameras in delivery drivers' cabs to countries outside the US.

The case for surveillance

Clearly, there are often good reasons for the use of these packages. Employee surveillance software can help employers evaluate the performance of their staff, and is also particularly important for security when remote workers are dealing with confidential data.

However, as workers return to the office or take up hybrid working, there are no signs that its use is easing off – indeed, according to Top10VPN, it's actually still on the rise. Demand for such packages increased by 78 percent in January of this year compared with 2019, with overall demand 59 per cent higher.

And the scope of surveillance, too, is increasing. Last year, Microsoft patented a technology that uses biometric data to detect a worker’s stress levels when carrying out certain tasks. It would monitor blood pressure and heart-rate data that could be harvested from wearable devices, such as smart watches and fitness trackers.

Meanwhile, worker surveillance is increasing outside the office too, with Amazon, for example, recently reported to be widening its use of AI-equipped cameras in delivery drivers' cabs to countries outside the US.

The situation worries workers' rights groups

"Worker surveillance tech has taken off during this pandemic – and now risks spiraling out of control," says TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady.

The TUC is calling for a statutory duty to consult trade unions before an employer introduces surveillance using AI and automated decision-making systems.

It also wants a new employment bill that would include the right to disconnect, alongside improved transparency around the use of surveillance technology and a universal right to a human review of any high-risk decisions made by technology.

Meanwhile, in the US, worker surveillance is particularly widespread - and not always revealed to the worker. While states including Connecticut, Delaware, and California have introduced rules requiring workers to be informed if their employer is monitoring their online activity, both the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and the Stored Communications Act allow firms to track their employees without prior notification.

Handle with care

Whatever the legislation allows, though, organizations should be cautious about surveillance for surveillance's sake. Survey after survey has shown that younger workers in particular value trust and autonomy in the workplace - and in a recent survey from ExpressVPN, six in ten employees said surveillance made them stressed and anxious.

Meanwhile, while many monitoring packages offer a wide array of features, organizations should resist the temptation to employ them all. There's no point in collecting data that's either unimportant or that will never be analyzed and acted upon.

And whether or not it's legally required, employees should always be kept aware of exactly what's being monitored and why – according to Gartner, acceptance of email monitoring rose from 30 per cent of employee to more than 50 percent if the reasons were explained.

While in many cases some level of staff monitoring is necessary, in short, employers should be wary of hoovering up every keystroke just because they can.

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