Watching you, watching me – what people think about being monitored by their employers

More and more companies are using surveillance technology to keep an eye on what their workers are doing, both at home and in the office. But employees are finding new ways to avoid their gaze

Work Surveillace Min

Do you ever get the feeling that you’re being watched at work? If so, you’re not alone. Just over 80% of workers feel that they are being monitored by their employers to a moderate or high degree, according to a new survey conducted by Raconteur in partnership with Attest.

These concerns are not unfounded. According to a 2023 analysis of 50 of the most prevalent employee monitoring tools by online résumé builder StandoutCV, there has been a marked increase in the use of video monitoring, document scanning and attendance tracking since its previous review in 2021. One phone-booth maker is even thinking about adding heart-rate sensors to its office furniture to help monitor people’s stress levels.

Employers are becoming increasingly interested in when and where their staff are working. The return-­to-office push has led firms such as EY to monitor the use of ­employees’ access-control cards as they move around their offices. 

Similarly, paranoia about the productivity of remote workers has caused some businesses to keep closer tabs on their activities. Last year, fintech firm Monzo was found to be using a so-called BizOps system to check that members of staff were using work devices for at least 85% of their contracted hours. More recently, Starbucks, Nestlé and AstraZeneca were among a number of companies found to be using Aware, an AI-powered tool that monitors employees’ messages.

While such Big Brother methods often capture headlines, some of the most common examples of employee tracking are more benign. Half of the 1,000 survey respondents reported being asked to log their working hours, while 49% said that their employers were recording their office attendance.

Only 8% said they were aware that their employer was using so-called bossware – software that more closely monitors people’s activities by recording their keyboard and/or mouse usage. 

Josh Bersin, a global HR techno­logy analyst and CEO of The Josh Bersin Company, notes that the tracking of employee activity by companies is nothing new. Indeed, the practice is well established in call centres and sales teams.

But he adds: “The recent uptick in surveillance has been because there is more remote work. Managers are getting bogged down in whether remote employees really are working at home all day. This stuff is useful only when it’s used to improve productivity, not to monitor people to ensure that they aren’t slacking off.”

Staff threaten to quit over employer tracking

The survey reveals that 63% of respondents would consider the use of tracking software for such purposes as a reason to leave their employer, with 28% strongly agreeing that this would make them consider quitting. They’re significantly less concerned about the monitoring of office attendance, but 38% would still regard it as a reason for leaving their company if it were to introduce such a measure.

Any organisation that’s thinking about introducing workplace monitoring must tread a fine line between being supportive and inadvertently creating a surveillance culture. That’s the view of Terez Rijkenberg, chief people ­offi­cer at business transformation consultancy Socium10X.

“Companies need to be upfront about why they’re watching,” she warns. “Only by being completely truthful can you foster a culture of trust that withstands the challenges of workplace monitoring.”

Hayfa Mohdzaini, senior research adviser on data, technology and AI at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, agrees.

“Monitoring technology is not a simple solution for performance problems and does not replace good leadership,” she says. “Employers should consider carefully whether employee monitoring is needed and, if they do need to introduce a new monitoring measure, they should be clear about what they’re doing and why.”

Context is also an important consideration, adds Mohdzaini, who would remind any employer that what’s acceptable in one setting might not be in another.

Employers lose trust of staff

The increased use of surveillance is also leading some employees to seek ways to avoid detection. The survey reveals that relatively low-tech methods are most common, such as selecting the private setting on a web browser (reported by 14% of ­respondents), using secure messaging applications such as WhatsApp to chat to colleagues (13%) or setting their status to online while away from the desk (13%).

A small percentage are prepared to go to extra lengths to escape the eyes of their employers, including using virtual private networks to protect their privacy online and sidestep website blocks (7%); deleting spyware applications from their work devices (3%); and installing tools such as mouse jigglers that can fool bossware into thinking that someone is active on their computer when they aren’t.

Fewer than half (48%) of those surveyed claim to have never used any method to prevent their employer from monitoring their activities. The fact that more than half have been willing to use deceptive tactics to avoid being tracked points to a breakdown in trust between employees and employers.

Younger workers are particularly wary of the increased use of corporate surveillance. Members of gen Z are more likely to feel monitored at work and more frequently seek ways to avoid such surveillance. This is despite the fact they are the most likely age group to agree with the suggestion that workplace monitoring improves productivity.

Simon Watson is global head of ­innovation at Kinly, a provider of remote and in-­office monitoring systems for employers. He believes that there is a perception problem surrounding the technology. “The word ‘monitoring’ has negative connotations in the context of the workplace, but nobody has an issue with the technology when it comes to sharing their personal ­information with Samsung through a fitness tracker,” he says.

In Watson’s view, too few companies are promoting the employee wellbeing benefits that monitoring systems can provide. For example, video monitoring tools can be used to analyse an employee’s home working environment and provide recommendations to optimise light or noise levels.

“Monitoring technology gives HR more power to help employees work in the best way from wherever they are. It can warn you to turn on a light or take a break. It could even tell you that it’s more economical to go into the office on a given day, as ­opposed to staying at home,” he ­argues. “If people understand why they’re being monitored and it’s clearly communicated that this is for their wellbeing and a better work experience, there shouldn’t be too much of an issue.”

If businesses do decide to monitor employees, any methods should not be excessive and their use needs to be justified, stresses John Palmer, a senior adviser at the government’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbi­tration Service. 

“Employees are entitled to some privacy at work, including while working from home,” he says. “If monitoring is excessive or fails to respect the employee’s privacy, it can damage trust, cause stress and reduce productivity. And, in some circumstances, it is possible that an employee’s legal and human rights could be breached.”

Overstepping the mark can lead to legal and financial punishments for businesses. For instance, Amazon’s operation in France was recently fined €32m (£27m) for what was deemed by the French data privacy watchdog to be the “excessive” monitoring of warehouse workers. 

Meanwhile, in the UK, The Information Commissioner’s Office – which has released guidance on how to comply with data protection law when monitoring employees – ordered Serco Leisure to stop processing biometric data to check people’s attendance.

Employers must be able to justify the level of detail collected and ensure that this aligns with the monitoring purpose, warns Gearalt Fahy, employment law expert and partner at Womble Bond Dickinson. Personal data has to be processed lawfully in a fair and transparent manner; collected only for legitimate, specified purposes; and limited to what is necessary in relation to its purpose, he adds. 

Data protection rules will apply to the information that is gathered, while employees retain the right to request access to any of their personal data that is collected.

It’s also worth remembering that relying on data alone can be misleading. Fahy notes that this is “particularly relevant for performance monitoring, where factors such as neurodiversity and reasonable adjustments for disabilities may not be reflected in the data and require additional consideration”.

As the use of monitoring becomes ever more prevalent, firms need to understand their legal obligations. They must also be mindful of the ­effects such prac­tices can have on those under surveillance. The benefits of greater oversight may not ­always outweigh the risks it poses to good employee relations.