For many office employees, working from home throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it some unexpected pleasantries: getting to spend a little longer in bed, fitting in a workout during a lunch break with ease and being able to potter around the kitchen making healthy meals (instead of grabbing a sandwich on the go). But for some employers, the transition (and lack of office walls) has meant that monitoring staff has been somewhat of a challenge – especially as many of us continue to embrace a hybrid model of working.
It was March 2020 when the UK government first announced that everyone who was able to work from home must do so for the foreseeable future. For Kate* it was her first taste of working from home. "I don’t think they had the budget to buy laptops for everybody so our desktop computers were taken from the office to our homes and set up by the HR person in the office," she tells Refinery29 UK of her former employer. At this point she had been working for the company for about a year. Like many other workplaces, adapting to a new way of working didn’t come without hiccups. "We had a couple of months of working from home and we really struggled to adjust to the working from home system," she recalls. Being a relatively small team, they found it especially challenging when their client list doubled. Going from an expected client list of eight to 10 to a client list of 16 without any more resource resulted in a hugely increased workload. Months of pushing for extra help came to nothing.
Kate, who was 28 at the time, entertained a potential career move – like so many other people in recent months – after being contacted by a recruiter. "I did my Zoom interview at 4 o’clock in the afternoon on a Monday, which was technically in my working hours but it was sort of right at the end of the day," she says. "And I thought, I’ve done so many extra hours for them over this time, like – it’s fine." Days later, she was invited to come into her workplace for a one-to-one meeting with her manager and a senior leader at the company.
"It was all very box-ticky," she recalls. Afterwards the senior leader asked her to go for a coffee with him. "During it, essentially, he revealed that he knew that I’d interviewed for somewhere else. And he knew the names of the people that I’d done the interview with. So I started getting questions in my head about how he knew this information." These questions were further amplified after she’d been virtually discussing the meeting with a colleague and the senior leader asked to video call both of them. After their chat, both agreed that "it sounded like he knew that we were having this conversation". Kate resigned that day. "I sent him an email with my notice because I just thought, This all feels really uncomfortable to me," she says. So, too, did Kate’s colleague, making it clear that she felt she was being monitored without her consent – an accusation the company denied.
Monitoring employees’ work is nothing new, which is why everyone knows that you should always exercise caution when accessing personal information on a work device. However, with the availability of invasive forms of spyware that are able to detect keystrokes and monitor screens, some employees have concerns. For this reason, the trade union Prospect wants to see stronger regulation put in place to protect employees’ privacy. According to its latest survey, involving 2,424 UK workers, 32% of workers are now being monitored by their employers.
Young employees seem to be at higher risk: 48% of 18 to 34-year-olds report being monitored, 20% of whom through the use of a camera. Does your employer have to inform you before installing spyware on your work devices? "This would almost certainly be unlawful under data protection law and might well amount to a breach of the employer’s implied duty of trust and confidence," explains Susan Kelly, partner at Winckworth Sherwood. "Employers are only allowed to monitor employees’ actions to prevent certain types of liability arising and by means of specific policies of which employees are made aware." According to Prospect, UK workplace home surveillance has increased by 24% since April 2021.
While working her notice period, Kate became "really paranoid" about the thought of being monitored. "I’d been to the doctor as well, previous to all of this happening, because of anxiety due to the amount of work, and I was getting really bad nausea. I was really struggling to eat," she remembers. Unable to sleep one night, she watched an online tutorial that detailed how to find monitoring tools on a device. "I spent probably 45 minutes clicking into each individual process to see what it was that was running. And then there was one that was quite vague, so I googled the jumble of letters and numbers and it said that it was a spyware process," she says. After some digging, Kate believes she found a piece of spyware technology that takes a screenshot of your computer every 15 seconds and sends it to a hub. With collected evidence, she consulted a lawyer and spoke to the governing GDPR body, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). But because she’d worked for the company for less than a year – UK employees hold more rights if they’ve been at a company for more than two years – it reached a dead end.
Whether working from home or in the office, the ICO advises that employers make staff aware of monitoring at work before it starts. If, for whatever reason, you think your boss has been monitoring you without telling you, you should ask them. "The sensible first step would be to ask about it or, if denied by the employer, try to be sure this is the case," advises Susan. "There may be a policy explaining and justifying the particular type of monitoring that worries you and it may be that the employer has taken all proper steps beforehand, such as an impact assessment in relation to the data processing this would involve. The law in this area is very complicated, potentially also involving human rights and the statutory regime in relation to the interception of electronic communications, so seek specialist advice."
One hot debate that’s involved all home workers over the last 20 months is whether employees are more productive when working from home than in the office. You could argue that monitoring tools have only exacerbated the issue. "I think, if anything, it just reduces productivity," says Kate. "I think people are so nervous, once they know that their screens are being watched, it’s almost like you freeze up a little bit. I think the only way that you can actually monitor how well someone’s doing at work is from their results."
With the Great Resignation upon us, it begs the question: are monitoring tools – such as Hubstaff and Sneek – giving employees like Kate the ammunition they need to quit? According to a new survey from recruitment firm Randstad UK, almost a quarter of workers are planning on changing employers over the next few months. People are quitting their jobs in record numbers, apparently due to burnout, unhappiness in the workplace and the COVID-19 pandemic prompting them to address their work-life balance. Kate certainly doesn’t regret her job switch. "I think as long as people are producing everything on time, clients are happy, results are coming through and the work is getting done, then monitoring how people are doing that work and the certain time slots that they’re doing it in is not going to benefit anybody, really," she says. "The only way I think that you could use it to benefit somebody is to say, okay, it looks like this person is really productive between 7am to 10am and then 6pm to 9pm, so maybe we should encourage flexible hours?" In short: welcoming a whole new way of working instead of distrustfully monitoring employees’ every move.
*Name changed to protect anonymity