• Hannah Kershaw

University Study Finds Surveillance During COVID-19 Has Damaged Trust in the Workplace

The University of St Andrews has been involved in a new study on the increased use of surveillance by employers during COVID-19 which has damaged trust in the workplace. The 105-page report, written by Professor Kirstie Ball of the school of management, found that desktop, webcam, keystroke and email monitoring had “intensified” during the pandemic. The study for the European Commission’s Joint Research Council notes that web searches for "How to monitor employees working from home" increased by 1,705% in April 2020 compared to searches carried out the preceding year. According to the report, “Employers are entitled to monitor their employees to ensure that resources are used efficiently, to protect commercial confidentiality and management risk, and to ensure that laws are complied with and that no crimes are committed by their employees.” It adds, “Employees expect to have their performance reviewed, objectives set, and information gathered on their activities – indeed, this is seen as good management practice.” However, employee surveillance can become controversial when monitoring goes beyond the boundary of what is deemed appropriate or necessary. The study found that problems occur when workplace monitoring reveals more about the life of an employee outside of work. The report — which involved the analysis of 398 articles — found, “Excessive monitoring has negative psycho-social consequences including increased resistance, decreased job satisfaction, increased stress, decreased organisational commitment and increased turnover propensity.” Types of monitoring that the report considers intrusive are: “The automated monitoring and recognition of employees’ facial features and expressions and the use of biometrics for access control.” The study adds, “There is currently a legal grey area surrounding whether employers can process the biometric data of employees.” As many of these practices are recent developments, the report notes that workplaces may not have the sufficient support of supervisors and managers to protect employees. Historically, the use of surveillance in the workplace has existed as a way of organising business. Older forms of workplace monitoring include clocking in and counting and weighing output. The development of information gave early businesses a competitive advantage through the ability to “police their internal structures” through the development of information systems. The study states, “An act of surveillance always involves the purposeful gathering of information about something or someone. That information is then rationally and systemically analysed, and the outcome of that analysis is then used to influence the behaviour of the original surveillance target.” It continues, “For a phenomenon to qualify as surveillant, two elements need to be present: data must be gathered and analysed, and then applied in a process of influence over the original data target. Surveillance always involves an exercise of power.” The scope of monitoring by employers has increased to target the professional profile, reputation, location, task performance and the thoughts and feelings of employees. According to the Office for National Statistics, 46.6% of people in employment participated in remote working in April 2020. Of those who worked from home, 86.0% did so as a result of the pandemic. The report notes, “The transition to remote work during the pandemic has anecdotally increased the use of employee surveillance measures to keep track of workers’ behaviour as well as their outputs”. “Prior to 2020, most workers had little remote working experience, nor were they or their organisations prepared for supporting it. Now, millions of people across the world are working remotely as a matter of necessity and it is a key source of resilience for many organisations.” Since restrictions were lifted on 19 July, the government has recommended a gradual return to work in England. Some businesses continue to offer workers the hybrid form of office and remote working. The report notes that there is still a great shortage of research on the effects of the recent phenomenon of increased surveillance in the workplace. A reassessment of which workplace practices are invasive as well as greater supervisory support is crucial to protect workers’ rights. The report says, “In the current climate where millions are forced to work remotely, the introduction of more intrusive monitoring beyond outputs is likely to be disproportionate and experienced as invasive and stress inducing by employees.” DOI: 10.2760/451453 Source: The European Commission

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