When lockdown was first announced in different parts of the world, everyone thought it would be temporary, and we would be back in our offices after a brief absence. But as time wore on and it became clear that companies would have to find ways to function without employees in the office, remote working became the buzzword in the workplace.
It became such a roaring success (despite some concerns), and soon it was pretty clear that remote work was here to stay. In fact, in a survey carried out by Gartner, 82% of leaders said they planned to allow remote working at least some of the time, even as employees made their way back to offices.
But, with the increased prominence of remote work, there has also been an increase in the need felt by employers to track employee activity and monitor the work they did.
A study found that in the first months of COVID-19 enforced remote work, 16% employers reported an increased reliance on employee monitoring tools.
While we can appreciate the difficulty in supervising employee work in this new setup, and employers may need to have some level of oversight on employee work, there is a balance to be struck between the need for monitoring and employee privacy.
Ethical tracking is important
When onboarding an employee, employers need to collect certain data - personal information about the employee, and other information that can be used to identify various aspects of the employee’s life. In 2018, the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) brought in new rules for the protection of such personal information, along with other employee data. Yet, despite stated employee rights, the discrepancy in tracking information continues.
Recently, Swedish retail giant IKEA was fined EUR1.1 Mn by a court in France for spying on its employees. It was revealed that Ikea France set up a “spying system” across its French operations, collecting information about the private lives of hundreds of existing and prospective staff, including confidential information about criminal records without the consent or knowledge of the people being tracked.
While having access to employee information of a certain nature could be mandatory according to a firm’s policy, the organization must keep employees informed on what information is being stored, tracked, as well as who that personal data will be shared with and to what end.
Monitoring vs. Tracking
Tracking employee work data is no news, but is it being done right and within acceptable and legal boundaries? The point here is not to say that data collection and tracking employee data is wrong or unnecessary. As a means to manage and monitor employee activities, data is important, and employers should have some degree of insight into what employees are doing. But that insight needs to be restricted to activities done in furtherance of the employee’s job.
Employers using tracking technology like time trackers, keyloggers, and software that take screenshots of employees’ screens is nothing new. But employees need to be informed of these measures before they start using company-provided hardware, and it is imperative for employers to take express consent from employees before beginning to track them.
In 2017, a German court ruled that employers tracking and using information obtained from keylogging software on an employee’s work computer installed without the knowledge of the employee to fire the employee was illegal. The court further observed that while the use of keylogger software itself is not illegal, using it to track employees without concrete prior suspicion of illegal activities is illegal.
At the moment, employers can track all phone calls, texts, emails, and social media interactions made by employees using company equipment. An employer needs to explain to the employee exactly what is being tracked and why.
Recognizing the need for productivity over monitoring
Employee tracking and surveillance is nothing new. Even before COVID-19 employers would frequently collect such information as employee key card registers, video surveillance, email monitoring, etc. as a metric for productivity and use such data to judge performance. Amazon has long been known for its notorious practices of using such surveillance to evaluate and fire employees at its fulfilment centers.
However, with WFH becoming a big part of the new normal, companies will have to strike a balance between the need to collect and track employee data, and the employees’ need for privacy.
One step in that direction is to shift the metrics for measuring productivity from time spent at work to actual output. With that, companies can focus less on tracking employee login/logout times and give employees freedom to decide their method of working, as long as targets are met.
Tracking in the hybrid workspace
With remote work fast becoming the norm, companies are faced with increased risk. With employees working in allocated office spaces using office hardware to work, keeping data secure was easy. But now, companies are faced with an increased risk of data breaches and hacks.
“When COVID-19 hit, we found that within the first month, 16% of companies put new tracking software on the laptops of their remote employees,” said Brian Kropp, Group Vice President for Gartner’s HR practice, in an interview. By July, the number had risen to 26% of companies.
Kropp has done research on post-COVID-19 workplace trends and went on to explain in the intervew how the adoption of AI is helping employers gain more and more access and insights into the private lives and affairs of employees.
While employee privacy is one end of the spectrum, cybersecurity is another. It has been predicted that ransomware attacks will affect businesses an average of one attack every 11 seconds by the end of the year, nearly twice the frequency in 2019. Cybercrime has also been projected to cost the global economy up to $6 Tn by the end of this year, rising up to $10.5 Tn in 2025.
With so much at stake, while it is only responsible for employers to keep a track on information being handled and work being done by employees, it is the ‘what and how’ that demands attention.
The debate on the need for tracking has already been settled. With businesses at more risk than ever before, it would be irresponsible for employers not to take all necessary steps to protect the business from threats, both from outside and from within, the operative term being ‘necessary’.
Working history is littered with cases of employers becoming overzealous in their attempts to surveille and monitor employees. With the world moving towards an age when employees are gaining more autonomy over their work than ever before (and rightly so), it is high time employers re-examine their practices to balance the need for control, data safety, and employee data privacy.