One in five employers monitoring remote workers or planning to do so, poll finds

Lawyers warn businesses could lose trust or fall foul of the law if they are not transparent about surveillance with their workforce

One in five employers (20 per cent) are already using, or plan to introduce, software to monitor employees who are working from home, according to a new report released today, despite evidence that employees are now more engaged and loyal compared to the start of the pandemic.

The YouGov survey of 2,000 employers, commissioned by Skillcast, found 12 per cent of firms were already monitoring their staff remotely, while 8 per cent had plans to implement monitoring. Another 6 per cent were considering whether to implement monitoring in the future.

Surveillance was also more prevalent among larger companies, 12 per cent of which were already monitoring their workforce, while 11 per cent have plans to introduce monitoring.

The findings led to warnings from experts about the legalities of employee monitoring. Transparency in particular was crucial when implementing or making changes to employee monitoring, said Rhian Radia, partner at Bishop & Sewell.

“Employers must tell employees about any new or increased monitoring to stay on the right side of the law. And not just that – employees need to understand how monitoring is being carried out and the reason for it,” she said.

Radia added that increased monitoring could require employers to make adjustments to a number of their policies, including around email, internet and social media usage, as well as data protection and disciplinary and grievance policies, if the end result of monitoring is potentially facing disciplinary action.

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This appetite for employee monitoring exists despite the survey revealing better engagement levels since the start of the coronavirus outbreak. Almost half of respondents (46 per cent) said their employees’ loyalty had increased since the start of the pandemic, with staff less likely to leave. Less than a third (28 per cent) disagreed with this view.

The survey, which was conducted between 27 October and 4 November this year, also found that one in three employers (33 per cent) found remote working reduced the risk of bullying and sexual harassment.

Employers needed to be aware of what increased monitoring could do to relationships with the workforce, said Hayfa Mohdzaini, senior research adviser at the CIPD. “Intrusive monitoring can undermine employee trust and may not be effective at gauging performance if the measures are not relevant,” she warned.

In some industries, compliance and regulatory issues sometimes justified the use of monitoring tools, said Rick Kershaw, chief people officer at Peakon. “But for the most part, the implementation of these tools is reflective of a lack of trust between leaders and their employees as more people work remotely,” he said.

Kershaw warned tracking things like time spent online and how long tasks take to be done could have a negative impact on productivity and engagement by “creating a culture of distrust and eroding employee morale”, and that making the decision to monitor employees could risk losing goodwill.

“The key is to strike an agreement on what level of output is expected and to then grant employees the autonomy to achieve that in the way that’s best for them – judgement free,” he said, adding that employers who grant this autonomy tended to see higher levels of overall engagement. 

“Employers should recognise that unprecedented circumstances, such as enforced remote work during a global pandemic, will naturally impact productivity to some extent,” he said. “If they have evidence that an employee’s performance has dipped below what’s expected, they should speak to that employee directly to gain a better understanding of what is hindering them, and what they can do to support them.”

Kate Palmer, HR director at Peninsula, said any monitoring needed to be “proportionate to the legitimate business interests at hand”, and also stressed the importance of transparency. “Employees should be informed of the monitoring, the reasons for it and how the information may be used. Privacy notices, which are a common feature in an organisation’s business interactions since the introduction of GDPR in the UK, are a good way of ensuring your monitoring practices are transparent.”

It was only natural that employers want to have management information to hand at a time when employees are less visible on a day-to-day basis, said Tom Moyes, partner at Blacks Solicitors. “However, employees must be kept up to date on the data that has been captured and why it's needed," he said.