Remote-working supervision see a threat to employee privacy
The Orwellian spiral that COVID-19 has thrown UK workers into has seen little backlash – so that employers seldom have to justify their actions
The Covid-19 pandemic has exponential effects on many aspects of life for millions worldwide; in particular, those who now have to work from home. The national office for statistics reported in April 2020, 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home, 86% did so as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and more than half (57.2%) of employees located in London worked from home.
During this stressful time, a substantial amount of focus in the media has been dedicated to the effects of the pandemic on mental health. Reports of people feeling isolated in their day-to-day lives have become common. These feelings seem to have been worsened through employees having to work from home, where they no longer have face-to-face communication with fellow workers or can differentiate between their home and work life, not being able to work in professional settings that allow for a sense of unity and accomplishment within companies.
A survey conducted by Talkout found that 35% of the 1,500 employees commented that their mental health was worse now than before Covid. Furthermore, only 15% said they would be comfortable talking to someone in the HR department at their work, and 17% reported that they would not be comfortable talking to anyone at all.
Employers believe, furthermore, that isolation will affect employees, believing it will affect the productivity and performance of their business, and are thus less concerned with the wellbeing of their employees during this difficult time.
As a result, various companies, namely Barclays, have been reported to be using different surveillance software to measure the productivity of their workers by tracking the amount of time they spend at their computers and tracking their online activity. Many other companies in recent months have come under scrutiny for using these programs, as many employees feel that this is a severe breach of privacy when they are working from within their homes, where there is potential for personal information to be collected by employers.
Some who have commented on the situation argue the surveillance conducted is necessary; especially during a time where a large proportion of employees are working in isolation, away from supervision. This argument seems to stem from basic economic theory that suggests that employees are motivated solely by material gains and self-interest, and without supervision from higher-ups in the company, will become idle and no longer work at the levels of productivity that they were Pre-Covid.
However, there is little, if not no evidence to support these claims. Research conducted by the office of national statistics found that during the Covid pandemic, those working from home reported little difference between their productivity levels in the workplace and at home. Besides, there is evidence that suggests that in some cases, employees are more productive when working from home. Moreover, psychologists and economists have long since determined that this principal-agent theory described above is not an accurate reflection of employee’s interests.
A wide array of research has shown that generally, employees value autonomy tremendously. Therefore, it is clear that the surveillance placed on employees without their consent is not likely to have a positive effect on motivation as is desired by employers.
It would likely be in the best interest of bosses to reduce the amount of surveillance and instead focus on increasing honest communication between employees and employers, allowing them to keep their sense of autonomy and responsibility, likely growing motivation.
As expected, a large portion of the debate surrounding this issue is focused on legalities. While there is no legitimate right to privacy in the workplace in UK law, employers must uphold a mutual duty of trust, implied in all employment contracts, while also respecting the ever-relevant human rights Article 8 to Right to Privacy. In some circumstances, inappropriate or non-consensual monitoring could be considered a severe violation of privacy.
Employers believe, furthermore, that isolation will affect [employee productivity], and are thus less concerned with the wellbeing of their employees during this difficult time.
The determination of whether surveillance in these circumstances is appropriate relies mainly on the employer’s reasoning being legitimate. In fact, no businesses had stated that there was a decrease in productivity through output seen before the surveillance systems were installed, and many companies had only purchased the programmes during the pandemic and not previously in the workplace. The arguments put forward by employees about lack of productivity do not have much weighting, and it seems that they were vastly predictive rather than reflective of employees’ current work output. Therefore, employers should seriously consider whether their reasonings are warranted or whether they were too rash in taking these steps.
Under either circumstance, the situation will likely result in businesses losing employees due to lack of trust and sense of autonomy or will expose themselves to potential legal action. For those who are just entering the work environment, or will be soon, this issue will likely be distressing, as working environments are predicted to become continuously more remote and make the most of the benefits that come from working at home.
It is likely that in the future if surveillance continues, employee-employer relationships will continue to be damaged further, and labour turnover will be high as employees look for businesses that offer more honest means of communication and supervision. Arguably, having a more negative impact on the productivity of employees than what employers predicted during the pandemic.