Employee surveillance and productivity monitoring date back more than a century. However, it is barely recognizable today compared to the days of Ford Motor Company. Back then, companies would send inspectors to the homes of their employees unannounced to see what they are actually up to. Today’s technology allows employers to keep an eye on keystrokes and mouse movements on the laptops used by their employees, comb emails and even see what is on their screens. The use of biometric employee IDs has also allowed employers to track their employee’s physical location and the length of their conversations with a colleague.
These are of course done with the least disruptions to their activities, and may or may not be with the knowledge of the employee. These come from the fear that employees maybe lazing about in their homes or brazenly napping while their inboxes became a critical mess. Various studies show that this phenomenon has been accelerated by the pandemic. A study by Gartner shows that at least 60% of the companies of the 1000 organizations that participated in the survey confessed to having adopted similar surveillance technologies by the end of 2021. That figure was only 30% before the advent of the pandemic. However, experts are also concerned about blurring boundaries between the office and home. Privacy Experts and researchers are voicing growing worries that employee data becoming increasingly more invasive as organizations continue employing staff remotely.
What’s in it for HR?
Tech companies such as Teramind, ActivTrak, Hubstaff, and Workpuls have developed tools that enable the surveillance methods we talked about above. These are tailor-made for the Bosses and Managers who nostalgically think of exercising their power and authority from a real office “with a view”. These applications track and compile reports of what the employee was up to during their workday. However, these reports are not completely reliable as the reports are incomplete more often than not. Nevertheless, these applications are an ostensible means of ensuring productivity. Hence, the employer's urge to have their remote workers monitored and report generated is legitimate; however, they do not have to be invasive of the employee’s privacy. The addition of AI to these tools have also made it increasingly acute in their methods as people become judged by algorithms.
Traditionally, working in an office means workers forgo some rights they have and expect to keep at home, but the new era of remote work has upended these expectations, now that data collection is happening in bedrooms and home offices. Say you are in a Zoom call and is in your living room or home office. It is ubiquitous that a kid or your spouse might walk-in in to or across the background and you will be forgiven to think that people are aware of the privacy problems. Except some workers are not necessarily aware they are being monitored, or how. In a 2021 survey by the Social Science Research Council of 645 workers who had worked remotely at the same company for at least part of the time since March 2020, 23% of respondents were not sure if their employer had changed its monitoring policies or adopted new technologies to track them during working hours.
According to one of the survey’s researchers, Jessica Vitak, that represents a concerning precedent. “The emphasis should be on the company to make sure its employees have not just been notified, but that they know about and understand these policies,” she said. The emphasis has to be made through HR policies and regulations that protect their employees from non-consensual scrutiny and monitoring that might infringe the privacy of the employee. Worker surveillance technologies, as well as the algorithmic management technologies they are usually deployed in conjunction with, and employers' use of them, are largely unregulated in most countries and steps have to be taken by the stakeholders to change that.