We’ve already written extensively on employee rights during monitoring in the workplace , but haven’t touched upon the practical implementations of monitoring tools. And after reading this article, you might conclude that ignorance is indeed bliss.
There is a whole range of technologies employed for the purpose of workplace monitoring. Unfortunately, lately they have become very intrusive and even illegal in some countries. However, in a quest to improve productivity and profits, employers’ hand is often forced and they have to implement at least some monitoring measures.
It would be unfair to say there are no benefits to monitoring. It ensures that all employees pull their own weight, thus preventing unfair situations where an employee would slack off whereas others would have to work like mad to get the job done.
That said, the monitoring tools and devices used could be ‘a tad’ too intrusive… but see for yourself.
As Sophos reports, our usual perception of workplace monitoring tools is very wrong nowadays. We most often think of keyword monitoring that aims to detect the words that aren’t part of the usual business communication.
But today, the tools are much more than that – more capable, and more intrusive. The Guardian aptly named them ‘a digital panopticon’ that tracks the workers’ every move.
Your Every Move – Recorded
These tools analyse your browsing history via data they capture from network servers. Keyloggers track everything the user types in, and your social media posts are scrutinised as well.
Some freelancer monitoring tools, such as Crossover, periodically capture webcam images in order to verify the worker is sitting at their workstation. Additionally, with data captured from keystrokes and mouse movements, they calculate a ‘focus score’ that is then used for further analysis.
Other companies increasingly focus on CCTV surveillance, but this is still an ‘old-school’ method fraught with legal issues in many jurisdictions.
A famous British tabloid, The Telegraph, installed a set of monitoring sensors called OccupEye in its offices some time in 2016. The news exploded and Telegraph reneged after just a few hours. While theirs is probably the result of well-meaning but badly managed effort to slash costs, there are certainly dozens of companies happily using the tools.
So, what are OccupEye sensors? They are simple battery-powered devices that monitor workplace occupancy, i.e. whether the worker is sitting at their desk. It doesn’t take an expert to figure out that sitting at a cubicle does not equal increased productivity at all. However, these systems cut costs in another way: by reducing the number of desks used and thus the rents and utilities paid by the company. The goal is to have as few unused desks as possible, and possibly introduce a hot-desking system where several workers share a single desk.
The Emotion Commotion
Financial companies were quick to adopt surveillance methods. The reason is simple: adequate monitoring systems will prevent or at least curb insider trading, something which the companies are obligated by law to contain.
But why not go the whole hog then? It’s a well-known fact in the gambling world (and, by extension, in finance) that ‘hot-headed’ betting leads to even deeper losses. It’s no wonder then that, according to a Bloomberg report, several investment companies invested in special wrist sensors that monitor emotions.
If the sensor detects that a trader is becoming emotionally unstable, by using cues such as perspiration and heart rate, the employee is instructed to step away from their desk. In theory, a technology that would provide a centralised overview into workers’ emotions already exists and the management could see in real time who’s ‘losing it’ and panicking as a result of a bad trade. The cost of this method is dwarfed by the huge potential losses a single trade can have, in tens of millions of dollars.
Moving on from emotion detectors to more primitive eavesdropping is not much consolation. Humanyze, a ‘people analytics’ company, has come up with a badge-sized device outfitted with a microphone. The device tracks employee’s movements and how often they chat with one another.
The results are then used to better map the office layout and interpersonal relationships. The actual conversations aren’t being recorded, but the data can be used to foresee certain issues, such as whether an employee plans to quit soon.
Your alt-tabbing practices aren’t safe from scrutiny, too. One company, Teramind, uses the metric of switching between applications as a way to gauge the employee’s attention and focus.
For example, switching to Firefox or WhatsApp when a person is supposed to be drawing up a memo in Word could be an indicator that they’re slacking off instead.
Other software exists that can gauge productivity by comparing the number of keystrokes made from day to day. If the number dips significantly, it’s a sign that the worker is doing something else entirely.
More importantly, software can now track ‘more subtle indicators of possible wrongdoing, such as context switching’, reports the Guardian. Context switching includes changing communication channels from, say, WhatsApp, to a face-to-face coffee in a lobby in an effort to avoid monitoring.
This is an indicator that the subject being discussed isn’t something that should be discussed via company monitored channels – and by extension, on company time.
Is This Legal?
Technically, these methods are legal in most countries. However, most jurisdictions require employee’s written consent before they are able to use these rather intrusive tools. Some surveillance cases, like a CCTV in a bank, do not require employee consent since it is in most cases reasonable to assume such a system is in operation.
However, the issue of consent is murky. Such a consent is likely to be given under duress, i.e. a threat of getting fired. It’s a sign-or-else condition in most cases, which makes consent a shaky ground to base one’s processing on.
The General Data Protection Regulation, a new privacy law entering into force on 25 May 2018, regulates workplace monitoring. As explained above, valid consent is required for monitoring – but the conditions are such that employee consent will almost never be valid. The employer is in a position of power, and the ‘choice’ the employees are presented with isn’t much of a choice at all.
We expect most companies to base their processing on legitimate interest, i.e. when the benefits to the company outweigh the potential risks to the employees. This won’t always be the case. The employers will have to perform privacy impact assessments. These analyses must be unbiased, and if they show that the employees’ privacy would be especially hard hit by the proposed surveillance methods, they must be abandoned.
As an example, consider the famous Barbulescu case. The Romanian programmer successfully sued his ex-employer after being fired for sending personal messages on Yahoo messenger. But it’s not a carte blanche that gives employees the right to surf the web for the entire time at the office. The employers still have the right to access the employee’s data and monitor it, but not without prior warning and not without reasonable suspicion of wrongdoing.
Even though the goal of the GDPR is to streamline the privacy regulations in the EU, workplace monitoring will apparently still primarily be regulated by the respective EU member state laws.
Overall, the trend is obvious: workplace monitoring is becoming more and more intrusive and pervasive. Companies are scrambling to reduce their costs and inefficiencies, and one area where this can be done is by monitoring their employees.
Businesses believe it is a great way to improve their productivity and make sure the money they pay their workers doesn’t go to waste. It’s easy to understand their concerns, but it’s easier still to go too far.
Too much surveillance undoubtedly hurts the overall morale and productivity, on top of dubious legal status. Even more telling is the fact that management in most companies is exempt from the surveillance measures described in this article. That begs the logical question: If you don’t want these ‘great’ productivity tools used on you, is it appropriate force them upon others? The answer, we believe, should be clear.