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Why employers shouldn't spy on their remote workers

Portrait Of Unhappy Woman At Home With Computer Victim Of Online Crime
It’s likely that an employee who is under surveillance will feel the monitoring is unfair — and question their loss of privacy, particularly if they are working in their own home. Photo: Getty

The idea of your boss monitoring your every move while you work sounds like dystopian fiction, but it is the reality for some employees. ActivTrak, WorkSmart, Work Examiner and Teramind are just some of the tools being used by businesses to keep an eye on their staff.

Workplace surveillance technology was first developed to tackle the problem of employees wasting time at work, for example, by scrolling social media or doing online shopping.

But with more people now working from home, away from the prying eyes of bosses, companies are using apps and programmes to keep tabs on their productivity.

But is it actually beneficial for businesses to engage in employee surveillance?

There are a number of ways in which companies can keep track of their employees, including taking note of what they type, recording their internet activity, using a device’s webcam and taking screenshots. Technology can also allow employers to track how idle someone’s computer is.

READ MORE: Can employers limit staff toilet breaks?

There may be legitimate reasons for checking up on workers, for example, a business may want to protect itself in the case of possible lawsuits. However, it’s possible for employers to go too far and cross ethical boundaries.

“It is important to consider the impact of surveillance upon employee engagement and motivation,” says Gillian McAteer, head of employment law at Citation. “The COVID crisis is recognised to have taken a toll on the mental health of many employees and this could be compounded if employees feel that they are being micro-managed and under constant scrutiny.

“In extreme cases they may even feel that the monitoring is to such an extent that it breaches trust and confidence in the employment relationship which could give rise to a claim for constructive dismissal.”

An employer might be nervous about allowing remote staff to work out of sight, but monitoring them can be terrible for morale. Employees won’t feel trusted, which can lead to staff seeking work elsewhere.

It’s likely that an employee who is under surveillance will feel the monitoring is unfair — and question their loss of privacy, particularly if they are working in their own home.

Surveillance can also lead to people being afraid to take breaks, which can negatively impact their wellbeing and lead to burnout. People aren’t machines and won’t be working every minute of the day, but being away from their computers may lead to stress and anxiety.

Is it legal for an employer to spy on employees?

The Data Protection Act doesn't prevent employers from monitoring workers, according to Acas. However, employers should remember workers are entitled to some privacy at work and must tell employees about any monitoring arrangements and the reason for it.

“Before implementing measures, the business should consider what they are trying to achieve and whether the proposed way of monitoring is necessary to protect their legitimate interests or goes beyond it,” McAteer says. “In particular, they will need to ensure that there is no infringement of the individual’s right to privacy or data protection rules.

READ MORE: How employers can make the most of remote working in the future

“In terms of data protection, most businesses would probably choose to rely on legitimate interest to justify processing this data but it is important that they can show that the need for monitoring outweighs the potential impact monitoring might have on the employee,” she adds. “This is why it is so important to ensure the measures taken do not go beyond what is strictly necessary to meet the business needs.”

If an employee is unhappy with the way in which their work is being monitored, they should speak to their employer to try to resolve the issue.

“If the matter remains unresolved they can report the matter to the Information Commissioner's Office or bring a civil claim in respect of breach of their rights under the data protection legislation,” McAteer says.

“They could also resign and claim constructive dismissal where they feel the employer’s conduct has led to a fundamental breach of trust and confidence in the relationship.”