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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Union urges government to reign in employee surveillance tech 

Prospect Union is calling for the government to reign in employers using invasive surveillance tools – such as keystroke, web camera or wearables tech – to monitor staff working from home.

Since the beginning of the pandemic and the rise of remote working, there has been a surge of interest from employers in technology that claims to ensure employees are working as hard as they would in the office. But new polling commissioned by Prospect finds, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the idea of being monitored form afar is deeply unsettling to workers.

Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy said: “Having your every keystroke or app usage monitored by your boss while you are working in your own home may sound like a dystopia- but there are precious few controls in place to prevent it becoming a daily reality for millions of workers across Britain.”

The union’s polling found that 66 per cent of Britons would be uncomfortable with keystroke monitoring (44 per cent very uncomfortable), while an overwhelming 80 per cent workers would be uncomfortable with camera monitoring (64 per cent very uncomfortable).

But this hasn’t stopped employers looking into and investing in this type of technology. The Guardian reports that this kind of invasive tech is on the rise, with consultancy PwC catching flak earlier in the year for developing a facial recognition tool that tracks when employees leave their screens.

Slack or Microsoft Teams check-ins, screen-sharing tools, or mandatory morning meetings where web cams have to be turned on, are other tactics being used by companies with a complex about shirking.

Professor of management at St Andrews University, Kirstie Ball, previously told NS Tech that surveillance technology is “a classic example of making an employment contract more difficult to fulfil” and a violation of the “psychological contract” between the employer and employee. She argued that the use of such technology can have “knock-on effects in terms of motivation and commitment”, cause an erosion of trust, and degrade an employee’s sense of control and autonomy, which can feed into increased stress and absenteeism.

“Employers are beginning to think about how their workplace will operate in the future, including a far greater prevalence of blended working and exclusive working from home,” says Clancy. “As the new reality takes hold we will see more and more debates about the use of technology to monitor workers – the evidence suggests the workforce are simply not ready for it.”

Prospect argues that the government needs to bring together businesses, unions, and tech companies to come up with a framework for how modern workers’ rights should look in a pandemic afflicted world.