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Monitoring employees: Can you? Should you? How far is too far?

We all still cringe at the sound of ‘pandemic’ and ‘covid-19’ – we’ve heard too much of it and lost so much to it. Now that we’ve regained control of our lives, we want nothing more, but to forget it. It is however indisputable that ‘it’ has changed the way we see and do so many things, including work.

The novelty of working away from the office was quick to set in. Awkward at first, yet acceptable soon after … only to become the preference for many. Remote working is now a fixture condition of employment in many sectors, with employers formalising arrangements for employees to work remotely for part of the week, some allowing periods of remote work, others even allowing employees to work away from home, or even the country of residence.

Whilst most employees are open to this ‘new’ mode of working, not all employers are keen on their employees being relatively unsupervised. Some want to keep a close eye on their workers, particularly remote workers. This flexibility therefore came with a surge in employee monitoring, albeit in different ways and to different degrees. Some monitoring programs record keystrokes, track computer activity through periodic screenshots, record calls or meetings, with others even having access to employees’ webcams. Some actually go to the extent of granting full remote access to employees’ systems!

Whereas there is no one-size-fits-all approach, and a manager’s zeal to monitor employees would depend on various factors, the basics of what is permissible cuts across the variables.

Certain surveillance technology involves a real risk of infringing an individuals’ rights to privacy. Then there’s also the element of how reasonable the employer is in deploying any such systems.

Excessive monitoring is likely to intrude on employees’ private lives and undermine their privacy, more so when employees’ expectations of privacy at home are likely to be significantly higher than in the workplace.

A recent Dutch decision, for example, unsurprisingly declared a termination wrongful where an employee was dismissed for insubordination and refusal to work, after challenging an instruction to participate in a virtual training programme for which he would have had to keep his webcam activated and screen-sharing turned on, for the entire workday – which the court also termed an unreasonable intrusion on private life.

For any monitoring to be legal, it must comply with data protection laws. Employers ought to conduct an impact assessment to ensure they are able to show a legitimate interest behind the monitoring and to demonstrate how the data obtained is to be used. Additionally, notification and information to employees through a privacy notice is key.

Acting properly and thoughtfully, employers can maintain a level of trust with their employees and promote confidence by remaining transparent about the processes they seek to implement.

Many figures and study results are thrown around, trying to prove different points. However, the signals clearly indicate that employees are not keen on working for a Big Brother-style employer, which will very likely, increase stress and anxiety, heightening resentment and lack of cooperation.

Sure, employees must remain productive and motivated, but intrusive monitoring has faced significant backlash and employers need to tread carefully not to unsettle the workforce or lose talent because of controversial changes.

Skirting close to privacy lines erodes trust, but is there an alternative?

I repeat, there is no one-size-fits-all formula and the model that works for an employer will depend on various factors, including the nature of the business.

However, when considering monitoring, employers must first assess to what extent any monitoring is objectively necessary, its purpose and whether the system being contemplated is proportionate – an aspect which can often be missed. For example, it has become common for employees to make mixed personal and business use of mobile devices, while still retaining privacy expectations related to personal use. Security methods such as encryption, remote device wiping and targeted website blockers, are available to ensure safe and secure business use of a device, without intrusive monitoring of personal messages, applications or website use.

Employers ought to also consider consulting with employees on how workplace relations and trust can be improved. Perceived lack of trust can lead to strain on manager-employee relationships and have a detrimental impact on employee wellbeing and morale.

Monitoring may very well not be the right tool to achieve the employer’s goals. Trust is a major component of a positive, collaborative workplace culture, resulting in decreased stress and increased employee engagement. Employee engagement will become far more difficult if your employees feel a constant surge of worry that the words they are typing and speaking are being monitored.

The real alternative is to focus on what motivates employees. They are looking for the opportunity to improve and master skills, a clear sense of purpose, values, belonging and an environment that offers autonomy for them to perform.

In essence, focus on effectiveness and a performance support framework.

If you then need to know what your employees have been doing, ask them instead of monitoring their moves. A short weekly report on their work, progress and new tasks can give the same information to a manager, in less time and consolidating trust instead of eating away it. Simple, quick and useful.

As Lars Hyland, Chief Learning Officer at Totara Learning, puts it “Going forward, trust and guidance beats command and control every time”.

So, the key question will be whether surveillance is really needed. If there is a real need for monitoring, be transparent about it, limit it to those areas where it is indeed necessary, and opt for the less intrusive systems which may deliver substantially equally effective outcomes.

Ask yourself – is what I’m doing fair to my employees? If your answer is no, then it is simple, reconsider and make the adjustments required to achieve fairness. Eliminate the Big-Brother environment and invest in gaining your employees’ trust – it is then that you will see the best results.