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78% of employers admit to using digital surveillance tools on remote workers

A recent study showed a majority of employers use surveillance software to monitor remote workers' productivity. Workers are concerned and view it as an invasion of their privacy and breach of trust. (WRGB)
A recent study showed a majority of employers use surveillance software to monitor remote workers' productivity. Workers are concerned and view it as an invasion of their privacy and breach of trust. (WRGB)
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The shift to remote work during COVID-19 spawned a rapid growth in employee monitoring software to allow bosses to digitally drop in on their remote workforce to ensure they're getting the job done.

It's been called "tattleware" or "bossware." The programs can measure an employee's active and idle time, track keystrokes and websites visited, record emails, chats and phone calls, even take screenshots and access webcams.

Managers may be gaining insight into how their remote workers spend the day but the adoption of workplace surveillance technology is making employees uncomfortable.

In a recent survey of 2,000 employers, Express VPN found 78% were using monitoring software to track their employees' performance or online activity. More than half started using the surveillance software in the last six months.

"The biggest driver behind employers’ growing interest in surveillance is their uncertainty and unease about the status of their company and whether employees are doing what needs to be done to maintain overall business performance," the report stated.

Many employers were nervous about the forced shift to remote work during the pandemic. They wondered how they would know if their staff members were working or spending half the day watching YouTube videos.

With people working outside of the office, employers reported feeling a lack of control over their business. They felt uneasy that they couldn't observe employees in person and said they didn't trust their team to work without direct or digital supervision.

One employer reported that the surveillance software helped to "ensure that work is running properly." Another said it helped communicate that there were still expectations whether working in-person or remote.

Their employees weren't as convinced.

Of the 2,000 remote or hybrid workers surveyed in the study, 59% said they felt stress or anxiety as a result of their employer monitoring them. Another 43% said the surveillance felt like a violation of trust.

Employees felt they were constantly being watched and reported feeling dehumanized. Some were afraid to take breaks. Others felt under pressure to constantly be online to boost their stats, even if they weren't doing productive work.

"Mutual respect and trust are vital for a productive and thriving workplace," said Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN. "Our research clearly shows that employers relying on surveillance tactics are at an increased risk of creating a toxic work culture with unhappy staff, and potentially experiencing higher turnover rates."

More than half of the employees surveyed said they would quit their job if their boss implemented surveillance measures.

One employee surveyed resented the idea of digital micromanagement. "My work speaks for itself. If you don't trust me to do my job, then it's time for me to leave," they said.

Workers have reason to be concerned about how the data collected on their work habits can be used. Nearly three-quarters of employers have used recorded calls, emails and messages for employee performance reviews. Nearly half said they fired someone after tracking their online activity.

Even though most people expect some surveillance on company-owned devices, at least one in three have still used their work phone or computer to do something they would find embarrassing if their boss found out, like searching for a new job, chatting with people outside work and visiting inappropriate websites.

Despite claims that the programs will boost productivity, there's evidence that the constant monitoring is backfiring and employees are looking for ways to game the system.

A recent Gartner survey of 2,400 knowledge workers found they were nearly two times more likely to pretend to be working after their employers invested in digital tracking systems.

"When you treat people like children, they act like children," explained Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. "People work their best when they're given goals, they're given resources to meet those goals and then get out of the way. Anything else is just going to reduce their performance."

Companies like Hubstaff, Time Doctor, ActivTrak or Awareness Technologies, have reported booming business during the pandemic, with demand for their products doubling or tripling. At the height of the pandemic, close to 70% of the U.S. workforce was remote. According to a recent Gallup Poll, half of workers are still working remotely at least part-time.

Those trends are likely to continue into the near future. Leading companies have unveiled plans for permanent remote and hybrid work, with schedules. By 2027, the global market for employee remote monitoring software is projected to hit $1.3 billion.

As of now, there are few if any legal restrictions on a company's right to track employees' activity on the clock. The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act allows employers to monitor verbal and written communication of their employees for "legitimate business-related purposes."

Several states have tighter restrictions, including Connecticut and Delaware which require notification if employees' email or internet activities are being monitored. Colorado and Tennessee require employers to set written email monitoring policies.

According to Li, the surveillance practices may be legal but they're not ethical. "Everyone has the right to privacy, including in the workplace, and nobody likes the feeling of constantly being watched," he said, likening the advancements in workplace surveillance technology to a "digital panopticon."

Outside of the limited state disclosure requirements, there is virtually nothing preventing companies from installing surveillance software covertly, without the employee realizing his or her daily work life is being monitored.

Experts warn that covert surveillance can damage morale, trust and a company's reputation, so it's critical to inform employees that they're being watched.

"Organizations who use these technologies should overcommunicate with their teams and be transparent about the reasons why," said Dawn Fay, senior district president for Robert Half, a specialized staffing firm.

Most software companies acknowledge the privacy concerns and risks of fostering distrust and urge employers to inform their workers that they are being monitored. Many companies also have features to give employees access to their productivity stats, which can boost performance and engagement, in some cases.

"Perhaps if these technologies provide more than just 'tracking' it can help develop team members into better employees — if they know what’s in it for them, they may see value for their career and growth," Fay noted.

Over half of office workers surveyed by Robert Half were open to digital surveillance if it led to perks, like the ability to work their preferred hours, work remotely or if the data were used to make decisions about bonuses, raises and promotions. Still, another 46% said they would not want their company tracking their online activity for any reason.

Most of the arguments from surveillance proponents boil down to the belief that keeping an eye on workers will make them more productive and less likely to waste company time. Research on the topic has produced mixed results, with studies indicating people do their best in the presence of others and others suggesting performance drops when people are being watched.

The past year has added to a growing body of evidence that remote workers are often even more productive than those working on-site. A majority (52%) of U.S. executives surveyed by PwC in the winter of 2021 said their workers were more productive working remotely than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic.

"How much more evidence do we need that productivity is not an issue?" said Lister. She continued that if it takes workplace surveillance technology "to know whether your employees are doing their job, that's a management problem, not a remote work problem."

Workers who are concerned about company surveillance should assume, as a general rule, that if they are using an employer-issued device, that their IT team or senior management might be able to track their activities to a certain extent.

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