Technology   //   May 25, 2022

‘I’m holding out to go to the toilet’: Why monitoring employees – inside and outside the office – is rocketing anxiety

How would you like it if your working day was monitored, and the time at the computer, the number of keystrokes and non-work-related searches all counted by your employer? 

Despite knowledge workers pleading for greater flexibility and autonomy in this messy post-pandemic period, and a clear shift to measuring outcomes rather than time, there has been a massive surge in worldwide demand for solutions to keep tabs on staff, wherever they are working. 

“It’s shot up by 56% since the start of the coronavirus crisis,” said Lesley Holmes, data protection officer for MHR, a payroll software and services company in the U.K. and Ireland. Now businesses are firming up their hybrid working strategies there is even greater interest in various forms of monitoring tech. The research she cites, from Top10VPN, shows global demand for employee monitoring software jumped by 75% between January and March 2022, marking the biggest three-month increase since 2019.

Employers, eyeing the nibbled-at bottom line and anxious about optimizing productivity levels, are turning to this software. But Holmes is concerned about the insidiousness of this technology. “These apps have become increasingly intrusive, as they can register the time taken to read and respond to an email, monitor meeting attendance, and even film employees from their screen,” she continued.

Indeed, research published by Prospect — a union which represents engineers, scientists and civil servants — in November suggested that 32% of U.K. workers were being monitored at work using tracking software and remotely controlled webcams. Additionally, home workers monitored via webcams had leaped from 5% to 13% in just six months.

Keystrokes, behaviors and biometrics

Paul Kelly, head of employment law at Blacks Solicitors in Leeds, in the U.K., says the latest solutions include monitoring software that tracks how many hours an employee is logged on, what they are doing, what websites they visit and what keystrokes they make. “Some software can even take screenshots of the employee’s computer and access their webcam, allowing their boss to check they are at their workstation throughout the day,” he added.

If you thought that was disconcerting, look away now.

Monitoring software has evolved to the point where it can provide analytical data to employers to work out whether the employee has been productive based on their behaviors and biometrics (which includes fingerprint mapping, facial recognition and retina scans.)

More alarmingly, workplace monitoring platform Aware’s “large-scale sentiment analysis” goes even further: it can, according to the product description, “identify trends in conversation sentiment and behavior anomalies across your networks.” In essence, it can compute the overall mood of employees via their interactions.

“These apps have become increasingly intrusive, as they can register the time taken to read and respond to an email, monitor meeting attendance, and even film employees from their screen.”
Lesley Holmes, data protection officer for payroll software firm MHR.

Hong Kong-based Harold Li, vp of ExpressVPN, one of the world’s largest virtual private network providers, believes many businesses today are prioritizing profits over employee privacy. “As with many privacy issues, there are psychological effects of employee surveillance that are particularly worrying,” he said. His company’s research suggests that many employees would rather leave their job than be subjected to the anxiety and stress caused by snooping.

Consider the experience of New York-based financial services professional Sebastian, a pseudonym to which WorkLife agreed. “If you had your boss physically standing over you in the office, breathing down your neck, it would make you feel pressured, worried about making a mistake,” he said. 

“But being surveilled by monitoring software is orders of magnitude worse. It’s creepy, and I feel I’m always being watched, to the point where I’m holding out to go to the toilet. It honestly feels like I’m in Nineteen Eighty-Four, and I can’t relax.” 

Ruling by fear or monitoring for good?

Little surprise, then, that Sebastian is seeking a new job. However, even that has its complications thanks to the monitoring. “I’m gripped by paranoia about engaging a prospective employer and have had to use my wife’s computer to look for my next role,” he said. 

“Many other people at the company who are also trying to move away, because trust has been totally eroded. No one wants to feel like they are imprisoned, even if it is well paid. And a ruling-by-fear approach is so last century,” he added.

Li of ExpressVPN identifies another potential problem. “Surveillance can have particularly sinister uses if we factor in serious workplace issues like harassment,” he said. “In this situation, can businesses ensure that a worker is protected when their private messages could potentially be viewed by their harasser?”

MHR’s Holmes agrees that caution should be taken, and urges organizations to use other ways of engaging staff — measuring well-being not solely performance. “Rather than adopting monitoring software, employers should look towards an HR solution that offers an oversight of employee performance at the individual level without any feeling of an omnipresent Big Brother,” she said. “The technology should enable managers to gauge the mood and performance of each employee, so they have an accurate aggregate assessment of their team to report up the chain-of-command.”

This view is echoed by Josh Bersin, California-based CEO of research firm The Josh Bersin Company. “On the positive side, software from Microsoft and others gives employers and employees data on well-being, so people can try to avoid overwork, too many meetings or emails or communications outside of working hours,” he said. 

Moreover, he argues, good management focuses on outcomes or results, so it is wrongheaded to measure activities. “While many sales and call center managers monitor detailed activities, this data is ultimately not useful for performance management unless directly related to real business results,” Bersin added.

Monitoring in the eyes of the law

But what about the legalities of keeping a digital eye on employees? “In the U.K., there is no specific law governing the monitoring of employees in the workplace, and the U.S. does not have adequate rules to protect staff from excess monitoring,” said Kelly of Blacks Solicitors. 

He points out that U.K.-based employers may have many legitimate reasons for the monitoring and surveillance of staff — for instance, to prevent theft or comply with health and safety regulations — but there are specific criteria they must meet to monitor staff lawfully.

“As with many privacy issues, there are psychological effects of employee surveillance that are particularly worrying."
Harold Li, vp of ExpressVPN

First, the employer must ask themselves why they need to monitor employees and what they hope to achieve. “Monitoring should have a clear purpose and not be frivolous snooping on staff,” said Kelly. Also, monitoring must be proportionate — neither too intrusive nor overly excessive in light of the employer’s aims. 

Thirdly, there must be respect for employees’ private lives, and their right to privacy. Lastly, and most importantly, employees need to be kept in the loop. “The employer should put in place a formal policy that informs staff that they are being monitored, how that monitoring will be conducted and how the information that is gathered will be used and stored,” he said.

Whatever the legal situation, the ethics are questionable. “Usually, employees will accept a certain amount of workplace monitoring provided that their employer is open and transparent as to why they are doing it,” concluded Kelly. “But without a doubt, increased workplace surveillance will have a negative impact on employee engagement, eroding the trust between employer and employee.”