How to monitor remote workers humanely

“For a man’s house is his castle, et domus sua cuique est tutissimum refugium,” wrote the lawyer and politician Edward Coke in 1628, the Latin clause adding that home is also the safest refuge.

Covid-19 has turned millions of homes into workplaces, but many remote workers feel uneasy letting their employers across the castle drawbridge. Research carried out by YouGov in September 2020 of 1,816 working Britons suggested that 66% of workers would feel uncomfortable if their employers monitored their keystrokes remotely, rising to 74% for tracking of wearable devices and 80% for camera monitoring.

Mike Clancy, the general secretary of union Prospect, which commissioned the research, called such monitoring “a dystopia”, adding: “As the new reality takes hold, we will see more and more debates about the use of technology to monitor workers – the evidence suggests the workforce is simply not ready for it.”

In December 2020, Prospect, backed by a number of MPs and academics, asked information commissioner Elizabeth Denham to update her office’s code on employment practices to protect staff against workplace monitoring technology. This follows criticism of Microsoft for generating productivity scores for individual employees based on their use of Office 365.

But for some admittedly well-rewarded workers, surveillance comes with the territory. Traders in financial markets are subject to detailed monitoring of their communications to discourage fraud and insider trading and allow checking afterwards, and the UK regulator recently made it clear this applied in homes as well as offices.

“While scenarios emerged early in the pandemic where the usual levels of recording and surveillance were not possible, our experience suggests firms have now overcome these challenges,” Julia Hoggett, director of market oversight for the Financial Conduct Authority, said in a speech on 12 October 2020. “Our expectation is that going forward, office and working from home arrangements should be equivalent – this is not a market for information that we wish to see be arbitraged.”

“As the new reality takes hold, we will see more and more debates about the use of technology to monitor workers – the evidence suggests the workforce is simply not ready for it”
Mike Clancy, Prospect

Jonathan Christensen, chief experience officer of New York-based financial services communications provider Symphony, says those working in such jobs can find monitoring useful, as it provides a record of conversations and decisions for regulators to check. “They are not trying to cheat, they are trying to stay out of trouble,” he says of such users, who he describes as “grown-ups”. 

Symphony was established by a group of large global banks led by Goldman Sachs, which are both customers and investors. Christensen compares its system to tools such as Microsoft Teams and Slack, but with high levels of security and encryption and a directory covering hundreds of thousands of users.

Messaging through the platform rose by 300% at the start of the pandemic as staff switched to working from home. In some cases, says Christensen, they moved from homes near the office to places in the country or in other countries. Demand for secure communications between institutions and private customers during the pandemic prompted Symphony to accelerate plans to integrate WhatsApp and WeChat messaging.

Christensen says other industries are likely to be happy with lower standards of regulation than banking, but that accountancy and legal firms, as well as publicly quoted companies, could benefit from improving monitoring. “Something other industries can learn from financial services is that it might be better to be proactive, rather than have regulators tell you what to do,” he says.

Monitoring needs to be justified

Monitoring communications for record-keeping and compliance provides a specific justification for staff surveillance, and Christensen says Symphony is not focused on spying on employees. Surveillance without a strong justification can create legal problems for employers under the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which will continue to apply in the UK after it leaving the European Union (EU) as it has been enacted in British law.

GDPR requires an appropriate lawful basis for monitoring. This can include an employer’s legitimate interests, such as a need to track staff productivity, but it has to show that the monitoring is necessary and that the individual’s rights do not outweigh those of the organisation. Employers also have to identify a specific problem, such as poor productivity, that the monitoring will address and consider alternative solutions.

Emma Erskine-Fox, an associate in data, privacy and cyber security at UK law firm TLT, says more intrusive kinds of monitoring often require greater justification. These include systems that record screenshots or webcam images or monitor keystrokes, as they may fall into one of GDPR’s special categories which include biometric measurements.

Family issues, health and religion are also given extra protection under GDPR, which contributed to Hamburg’s data protection authority fining Swedish fashion retailer H&M €35.3m (£32.1m) in October 2020 for keeping excessive records on workers at its service centre in Nuremberg, including data from staff surveys and informal chats with managers. Use of algorithmic decision-making or artificial intelligence can also increase the likelihood of regulatory action, she adds.

Organisations are required to carry out a data protection impact assessment (DPIA) for any data processing considered high risk under GDPR. Erskine-Fox strongly recommends DPIAs for any staff monitoring project. “It’s a very useful tool for digging into where the data protection risks are and how they can be managed,” she says, as well as demonstrating that the organisation has considered the legal issues in the event of a complaint or investigation.

She adds that staff must be made aware of monitoring and will often have the ability to opt out. Consulting staff on how a system will work can help built trust and, in general, Erskine-Fox says transparency is key: “It’s really important to be open with employees about what you’re going to do.”

Others agree that openness is vital if home workers are to accept monitoring. Rick Kershaw, who has worked in human resources for 25 years for companies including Expedia, Mitsubishi and Pepsi and is now chief people officer of Copenhagen-based employee engagement service Peakon, says staff tend to get twitchy when employers bring in new technology that can be used for surveillance: “People’s antennae will be up. They will be suspicious.”

This could undermine employees’ generally positive attitude towards working from home, seen in Peakon’s surveys of its customers’ UK staff. A comparison of responses from January and July 2020 found increases in employees saying they were happy with their working environment and that their employer cared about their mental well-being.

Relay benefits of monitoring

As well as transparency, Kershaw says employers should sell the benefits of monitoring: “Show it makes life easier or benefits the individual.” For example, customer relationship management (CRM) software can be used to monitor activity, but also helps staff do a better job of serving customers, such as by allowing them to see previous transactions and communications. “People intrinsically want to do a good job,” he says.

Kershaw says it may be better to focus on aggregated performance data on departments and geographical areas as this can be used to identify and address many issues without needing to consider individuals. He adds that if monitoring data is collected on individuals it should be treated as just one source of information for line managers who know their team members’ circumstances. “You have to treat employees as adults,” he says. “You can’t take the human out of human resources.”

One way in which monitoring can help remote workers is by spotting frustrating technical problems, such as connectivity problems, poor bandwidth or broken hardware. Caroline Lewis, sales director for Hampshire-based workplace data analytics provider Tiger Communications, says such problems make it particularly hard to use audio and video tools, and if they only occur some of the time they can be hard for IT staff to identify without automated monitoring.

“There are lots of ways of working now. None of them are incorrect, it’s about a balance”
Caroline Lewis, Tiger Communications

She adds that if staff are to be monitored on targets – which has long been common in contact centres – it can make a difference if those targets are reconsidered based on what best serves the business and its customers. One large client of Tiger has moved from looking at the proportion of missed calls to the proportion of customers who speak to a representative within a short period of time, either through having their call answered or being called back.

Lewis agrees with Kershaw that line managers are the right people to look at measures of individual staff, as they can interpret them best – someone may be making too much use of instant messaging as well as too little, for example. “There are lots of ways of working now,” she says. “None of them are incorrect, it’s about a balance.” Another Tiger client has noted regional differences, with its staff in London making more use of audio and video than those elsewhere in the UK.

Lewis believes it makes sense to give staff open access to performance data through simple dashboards as another way to demonstrate its worth. “The cynicism comes in where they don’t understand the benefits of the data,” she adds.

Douglas Bamford, a tutor at University of Oxford’s department for continuing education, sees another use for workplace surveillance – a fairer tax system. He argues that people who work part-time should be taxed more heavily than those who earn the same amount working full-time, as the current system provides an incentive for the well-paid to work shorter hours. Basic monitoring would give employers data they could use to comply with checks by tax authorities, he argues.

Bamford, who did temporary work in a call centre after getting his doctorate, says staff there accepted monitoring and he notes that workers have been watched closely by factory managers from the start. But he adds that it can feel different for those working from home as it can feel like a one-way process: “If you’re in an office and someone is staring at you, you can notice that.” If home workers are to feel comfortable with monitoring, employers need to make it visible – and make sure it works for staff rather than against them.

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