One in seven workers say employer monitoring has increased during Covid

Research also reveals a quarter of staff have had their work communications screened as experts warn surveillance has ‘taken off’ since the pandemic began

More than one in seven (15 per cent) employees have reported that monitoring by their employer has increased since the pandemic began in March, according to new research

In the poll of more than 3,000 workers across the UK – part of a survey commissioned by the TUC – more than a quarter (27 per cent) reported having their work communication screened, while 13 per cent had experienced desktop monitoring. A further 8 per cent of workers said their social media had been screened.

The research also found employers were using technologies to assess when employees started and finished work (26 per cent) and the amount of time taken on breaks (13 per cent).

Anecdotally, one respondent explained how their workplace used monitoring software that logged the hours staff work, counted the number of keyboard strokes per hour, recorded social media usage and took photographic ‘timecards’ every 10 minutes via a webcam. 

Workers on insecure contracts were more likely to report being monitored, with 33 per cent saying they felt their activities at work were monitored at all times, compared to just a fifth of those in secure work who said the same.

Frances O’Grady, general secretary of the TUC, said worker surveillance tech had “taken off” since the start of the outbreak as employers grappled with the reality of increased remote working. She said companies have invested in AI to keep tabs on their workers, set more demanding targets and automate decisions about “who to let go”.

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“Workers must be properly consulted on the use of AI, and be protected from punitive ways of working,” O’Grady said. “As we emerge from this crisis, tech must be used to make working lives better – not to rob people of their dignity.”

More than a fifth (22 per cent) of workers said they had experienced the use of AI and technology for absence management, 14 per cent for work allocation, 14 per cent for timetabling shifts, and 14 per cent in the assessment of training needs and allocation. 

Only 6 per cent had experienced AI and technology informing or making a decision to start a disciplinary process; just under 5 per cent to start a capability process; and 3 per cent to terminate or withdraw their work. 

However, less than a third (31 per cent) said they were consulted when any new forms of technology were introduced at work, and just 29 per cent reported staff were consulted when new forms of workplace monitoring were introduced.

Hayfa Mohdzaini, senior research adviser at the CIPD, urged employers to “think twice” before introducing any kind of monitoring or surveillance software to measure an individual’s productivity. She highlighted previous CIPD research that found intrusive workplace surveillance can damage trust, have a negative impact on morale, and cause stress and anxiety.

“Consequently, excessive monitoring can get in the way of performance,” Mohdzaini said. “Employers may get much better results by investing in line manager training and supporting employees to maximise results.”

In some cases – usually where security is a key concern – employers may have a legitimate reason for other ways of monitoring workers. But Mohdzaini stressed that employers should have clear policies so that workers know how they may be monitored and what they are monitoring is relevant and necessary.

According to the TUC report, only 28 per cent of workers were comfortable with the use of technology to make decisions about people at work, while 60 per cent said unless it was carefully regulated using technology to make decisions about people at work could increase unfair treatment in the workplace.

More than half (56 per cent) said introducing new technologies to monitor the workplace damaged trust between workers and employers.

Padma Tadi, senior associate at Irwin Mitchell, said that, on the face of it, using AI and technology for workplace monitoring can be a quick and objective way to maintain and monitor performance at work. But she cautioned employers to always back up the AI’s findings with good management and workplace practices. 

“The concern I would have as an employer is the wild objectivity of such data, and it could give rise to an increase in discrimination claims if decisions are purely based on gathering data,” Tadi said. “It’s not taking into account individual facts and circumstances, including protected characteristics.”

She also warned that using such technologies may fall foul of GDPR regulation and compliance. Tadi said there was specific wording in the data protection regulations about managing the “blurred line between personal and private life” and also “how you gather and retain that data”.