Should your boss be able to see what you look at on the internet?

Reports of firms monitoring staff’s home working computer usage are on the rise and could have serious implications for trust – so is this ever OK?

Should your boss be able to see what you look at on the internet?

‘Big Brother is watching you.’ It’s a phrase so ubiquitous in popular culture now (and so synonymous with Channel 4, Nasty Nick and assorted celeb breakdowns) that some may even be unaware of its origins. It’s the phrase, of course, used to remind citizens in George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty Four, that they are under constant surveillance – a chilling thought. 

And yet, in some ways, the fictional citizens of Oceania are arguably better off than some UK employees today, feels Tim Sharp, senior employment rights officer at the TUC. It’s a bold statement. But at least Oceania residents were aware of being monitored, he explains – a luxury many UK workers don’t enjoy, and increasingly so now amid widespread home working.

Some employee monitoring tech and productivity tool tech vendors, such as Prodoscore and Hubstaff, have “reported the number of companies trialling their software has more than doubled during Covid-19 when home working increased”, says Hayfa Mohdzaini, senior research adviser at the CIPD. Meanwhile, research by Top 10 VPN shows there was an 87 per cent rise in online queries about purchasing surveillance software this April (compared to average monthly searches between March 2019 and February 2020), and research consultancy Gartner has predicted 80 per cent of firms will be using such tools by the end of this year. “What is really worrying is it’s not clear that many workers know that such technology is being used by their employers and there has been little attempt to agree the use of it,” says Sharp. “Therefore, it’s not clear that there is any sort of consent... it’s something we are concerned about.” 

He’s not the only one. While tracking employees is nothing new, it’s the highly covert form this is increasingly taking that is a particular worry, agrees Norman Pickavance, former HR director and chief executive of Tomorrow’s Company and now independent adviser. Clocking in and out of work is a longstanding, overt and as such accepted form of monitoring, but keystroke and email monitoring, webcam access, screen recording or random screen capture and phone call recording is a whole new level of intrusion, he says. “The challenge with this software is it is very sophisticated and very deeply embedded within the way in which you are using the device,” he says, confirming that even before Covid such employee monitoring was “massively on the rise”, with this exacerbated by the fact “there are many employers anxious about [the effects of] home working on the productivity of their people”.

So is any level of remote surveillance ever acceptable? And if so, in what circumstances? Sharp says that from a legal perspective a lot of this is uncharted territory, which is why he is “worried, as it feels like we are sleepwalking into the use of technology without society having taken a view on what is acceptable”. 

Emma Vennesson, counsel at Faegre Drinker, advises employers to be transparent about using monitoring software, and that they should only implement it once a risk assessment has been carried out to determine “whether it is proportionate and justified”. “Employees should be informed about what personal data will be collected and the purposes for which it will be processed,” she says. 

Sharp adds that questions should be asked regarding a worker’s right to privacy in reference to article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. He says we don’t know “exactly what the courts would say about how the use of this technology relates to that right”, but he has “no doubt” cases will begin to emerge. Vennesson confirms that a right to a private life may extend to how staff use their time and what internet sites they visit, warning that “employers should consider whether monitoring is a justified and proportionate interference with that right”. 

Charlotte Marshall, associate at Faegre Drinker, adds that businesses wishing to use any data collected from an employee monitoring system to address performance management issues “should do so carefully”, especially if the employees are unaware of the surveillance, as the data can only be used as a performance management process if the employee is “fully informed”. 

Nadine M. Sarraf, chief marketing officer at Prodoscore, points out that not all employee monitoring tools are born equal, however – and the use of some will be much more benign than others, and genuinely useful to the employee as well as the employer. "While there is a place for recording keystrokes and taking screenshots in highly confidential industries, Prodoscore is not one of those tools," she highlights. "Unlike many software vendors that collect confidential data unbeknownst to employees, Prodoscore pulls together data that already exists into one simple dashboard to determine productivity intelligence... Employees can view their scores along with the organisation’s score and also receive daily suggestions on areas of improvement."

The kind of monitoring that other tools offer will always be a poor and ineffective substitute for robust performance management systems, however, which employers should be more than capable of adapting to a remote environment, many feel. “If some people are genuinely underperforming, skiving or watching Homes Under the Hammer, then deal with them through the performance management route, but don’t subject good workers to unnecessary surveillance,” says Gemma Dale, lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University. “Constantly watching your workforce is a failure of leadership,” she adds. “It is essentially admitting that you can’t motivate or inspire people to do their best, and that you can only get them to work when you are watching them.” 

The result, she says, will be a dangerous breakdown of trust. “Workplace monitoring technology will quickly and irrevocably erode the trust needed between employers and employees to recover from this pandemic,” agrees Gethin Nadin, director of employee wellbeing at Benefex, who points out that now is in fact the time to cut staff some slack given the ongoing pressures still faced. The current working situation is not normal, and many workers will have a multitude of concerns that will impact performance, he says: “Isolating these factors and focusing on the underperformance, rather than the underperformer, is a great place to start.”

Mohdzaini similarly warns employers to “think twice before introducing any kind of monitoring software”, with a recent CIPD report, Workplace technology: the employee experience, finding 73 per cent of employees feel the use of monitoring tools would damage trust, and a survey of 1,800 workers by union Prospect finding 48 per cent believe such software would damage their relationship with their manager. 

Covert monitoring also has serious implications for employee mental wellbeing, Pickervance says. “Wellbeing is about having a sense of agency or control over what you’re doing, and if you know you have someone watching over your shoulder, logging every keystroke you make, it will feel like being a kid again,” he warns. “Employers will risk the infantilisation of workers, which will have an impact on their mental health.”