Remote surveillance culture: necessary or invasion of privacy?

Managers have become more supportive of remote work, but is this a result of the emerging use of surveillance and monitoring tools available to them?

Remote surveillance is a way for employers to monitor what their workers are doing when they are working out of the office.

Time, activity and project management trackers are three categories of employee-monitoring software tools in 2023 that are becoming increasingly common. Whilst it is true that employee monitoring has always existed in the workplace, with the use of CCTV and other monitoring systems, it is fair to say that surveillance has risen considerably.

Statistics from Gitnux show that demand for employee surveillance software has increased by 58 per cent since the pandemic started; according to the TUC, 28 per cent of workers agree that monitoring and surveillance has increased since the pandemic.

Is remote surveillance necessary?

But does this increase in surveillance correlate with an increase in productivity?

Research by Gitnux suggests that employees are 7 per cent more productive when they know they are being monitored. In theory, monitoring enables employees to be held accountable and allows employers to ensure that tasks are being completed without the need for workers to commute to offices. In many ways, surveillance is the trade-off for not being in the office.

 ‘Employees are 7 per cent more productive when they are being monitored…’

Additionally, remote working can lead to employees adopting unstructured working practices and working longer hours than needed. A study of nearly 7,000 workers by Prodoscore highlighted that most workers are working longer hours due to the shift to remote working.

If employers are able to monitor employees’ working hours, they could also help prevent overworking and tackle burnout amongst their workforce. So, would remote surveillance in this context be a negative thing?

Is remote surveillance an invasion of privacy?

Despite these benefits, there are clear downsides to the use of remote monitoring software, including the creation of an atmosphere of distrust.

Whilst remote surveillance is legal, it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure their workers are aware of any remote monitoring software or measures that they have in place. Strict legal frameworks govern what data is and is not allowed to be collected on employee behaviour.

In the USA, for example, the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA) protects individuals against unlawful interception of electronic communications by the Federal Government or individuals. In the context of remote working, this statute would restrict the ability for employers to trace telephone communications.

Furthermore, an employee’s legal right to privacy, protected by Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, may be infringed upon by certain types of remote monitoring systems. These legal protections illustrate the complications and potential ramifications involved in overstepping the mark when it comes to monitoring workers.

Can remote monitoring create distrust?

Aside from the legal implications, even when employers follow the law and gain consent from workers when introducing surveillance software, remote monitoring can still create distrust between employer and employee and thereby have a negative effect on company morale.

 ‘Monitoring can have a negative impact on morale’

An ExpressVPN survey in 2021 revealed that 59 per cent of the 2,000 employees surveyed reported feeling stressed and anxious about their employer monitoring their online activity. This emphasises the need for open and honest communication and a culture of trust within a workplace, all factors which could be undercut by the use of remote monitoring software.

So, can an employer use the tools of remote surveillance in a positive way that benefits both the company and the wellbeing of their staff, without invading their privacy? It is clear, that although remote surveillance can be used with good intention, it poses significant threats to the privacy and wellbeing of employees and can negatively affect company culture.

Alice Edwards is a researcher and writer with WORKTECH Academy.
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