Who′s Zooming Who? Employee Privacy in the Age of Remote Work
How much privacy can employees expect when working from home?
Last week, global telecommunications agency Teleperformance plans to use webcams to monitor home-working staff were exposed by The Guardian. The company informed staff via a mass email that specialist webcams were going to be used to check for home-working infractions such as eating or phone use. The cameras randomly scan workers and if infractions are picked up, the camera takes a picture and sends it to managers.
Although Teleperformance made headlines with the story, they are not the only company to blur the fine line between privacy and employee monitoring. Since the start of the pandemic, a spectrum of remote work monitoring has come into play. This ranges from low-level, social media-style platforms such as Microsoft Teams and Slack that record when employees are online; to middling reports of employers requiring all staff to join a videoconference every morning to check on attendance; to extreme options such as video monitoring WFH employees.
In the world of remote work, is video monitoring crossing the line?
This question is not as simple as it might first appear. The right to privacy can be argued from both the employee and employer positions. It is about balancing the privacy of one’s home life with the employer’s need to protect confidential professional documents in unsecured home locations. The issue of employee monitoring may not have a simple one size fits all answer, especially when global companies have to navigate local variations in employment law.
The Real-World Effects of Employee Monitoring
Recent studies have shown that more hour-to-hour autonomy helps general productivity. While some argue that home working is down to trusting employees, there is also clear physiological evidence that monitoring and surveillance causes a downturn in productivity and may even breed resistance to work.
In an email obtained by The Guardian, Teleperformance warned workers: “If the system detects no keyboard stroke and mouse click, it will show you as idle for that particular duration, and it will be reported to your supervisor. So please avoid hampering your productivity.”
The work-from-home productivity anxiety is by no means new. The ‘shirking from home’ worry for employers was still in full force at the beginning of 2020. For many companies, the move to home working prompted a response of increased control. For example, in June 2020, the consultancy firm PwC faced criticism for its development of a facial recognition tool that records when workers are away from their computer screens. Basecamp’s founder, David Heinemeier Hannsson, also told The Guardian he regularly had to turn down requests from clients for new ways of spying on their home-working employees.
The issue with increasing surveillance controls is that businesses move to a mode of operation rooted in distrust. If employees are made to feel disrespected and distrusted, this is can quickly become counterproductive to relationships, workplace morale, and general productivity.
Larry Alton, a digital marketing specialist, has claimed that constant monitoring added to workplace stress, reduced creativity by forcing identical working habits, dampened morale, and caused a higher employee turnover.
The Right to Privacy and Global Employment Law
What does the law say about webcam monitoring and an employee’s right to privacy in their own home?
This question is, as ever, dependant on working locations and local law. While some employers maintain that the amount of employee monitoring is dependent on oversight or compliance needs – the level of surveillance will inevitably come down to the local laws in the employee’s working location.
Kara K. Trowell, in an article for SHRM, points out that employee privacy is protected to a much greater extent in the European Union (EU). European employee’s privacy rights are more securely protected than, for example, most American counterparts. If employers want to monitor EU employees at work, this monitoring must comply with the individual laws of member states as well as the regulations of the EU. These regulations include the EU’s GDPR which applies to any business that has employees in the EU.
The German subsidiary of international company H&M found this out the hard way after being fined 35.3 million euros by a supervisory authority in connection with a workforce monitoring program that was deemed to be an “encroachment on employees’ civil rights.”
Teleperformance seems to have stumbled at the same hurdle as the firm stated that the webcams would not be used for UK staff. The cameras are, however, anticipated to be deployed throughout a large amount of the other 30 countries where the multinational firm operates. Where the scheme operates will likely depend on where labour laws are less strict. Generally, lower-income nations have fewer workers’ rights and are more susceptible to employee exploitation – the Middle East and North Africa region is recorded to be one of the worst regions for workers’ rights. When thinking globally, companies should consider questioning – just because some regions allow workers to be monitored, does this mean they need to be?
The director of the anti-surveillance charity ‘Big Brother Watch’ Silkie Carlo, called webcam monitoring a worrying development of workplace surveillance. Carlo aimed to remind employers that just because some employees are working from home – this space does not simply become the workplace; “some employees are working from home, but the home still remains a private space.”
When it comes to working from home there are still many practicalities that need to be thought out. Webcam monitoring may seem to some simply a natural progression from workplace surveillance while to others it may be an Orwellian infringement of personal privacy.
Going forward, considering employee morale as equally important to productivity surveillance could be a good starting point. Output-driven workplaces that emphasise flexibility and individual working styles are likely to flourish in the post-pandemic world of work while those with more traditional attitudes may risk losing employees who have got used to a new way of working.
Balancing employee privacy with the security of sensitive workplace information was never going to be an easy step in the remote work revolution but going forward global businesses should tread this line carefully and thoughtfully.