The problem with surveillance of home workers

Technology has given companies the ability to monitor their workers even if they are working from home, but should they?

Woman in the room with video surveillance


The number of home workers who are being monitored has increased from 24% to one in three (32%) since April 2021, recent polling by the union Prospect showed. The percentage of people being surveilled through cameras in their homes has also doubled, from 5% to 13%. 

Andrew Pakes, research director at Prospect, says: “Undoubtedly, digital technology has kept millions of us safe, connected and working during the pandemic. But it also has a downside, and we’re worried by the fact that new software introduced to keep us connected during the pandemic is increasingly being used for invasive surveillance or micromanaging people’s working lives.” 

The main ways through which surveillance is being carried out is digital monitoring, tracking people via their work mobile devices, camera monitoring on laptops, measuring keystrokes and looking at what URLs or websites workers browse.

“It has moved to a really invasive level of surveillance, and in particular, when people are working at home, it raises huge issues around privacy and people’s right to a private life,” says Pakes. 

Why employers choose it 

Although more workers have now returned to the office, there is still a percentage of people either fully working from home or choosing a hybrid approach. For many companies this is a new way of working, which has created instability and which some, particularly those in higher level positions, may be sceptical about. 

Harriet Minter, journalist and author of WFH: How to Build a Career you Love Outside the Office, says: “We like status quo as human beings. We prefer to keep doing the same things as long as possible, so with any form of change you’re always going to find people who just don’t want to be involved.”

The idea of working from home being less productive and workers taking advantage of that time to attend to other personal matters has been studied in different papers. This has led some employers to choose digital technologies as a way to monitor their employees who are working remotely. 

However, Pakes believes that it is only a small percentage of employers who have adopted surveillance technologies due to mistrust.  

One of the reasons why employers choose to do this to homeworkers is to recreate an office environment. 

Pakes says: “I think most employers are trying to do the right thing. But at the edges, this software is gaining greater and greater power. And we need to ensure boundaries on that so it doesn’t create risks or damage people.”

Also, the polling highlighted how younger workers (18-34) are more likely to be under surveillance than their older colleagues. Indeed, 48% of them have reported being monitored at work, of which 20% was done with cameras.

This could undermine their confidence as well as create a weak relationship between employers and employees, who might perceive this a way of being controlled by untrusting employers.

The impact on workers’ mental heath

Whether the reasons behind surveillance are coming from a good place or not, reports have highlighted some of the impacts of being monitored at home. 

Not only could installing a camera in someone’s house to make sure that they are working be perceived as a sign of mistrust, but it has also had negative consequences on workers’ mental health. 

Minter says: “I think it could be included in a training environment, but beyond that, on a regular basis, there should be no need for using surveillance technology on your staff.”

Earlier in November, the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Future of Work (the APPG) launched a new report from the APPG’s inquiry into AI and surveillance in the workplace.

The report found that “pervasive monitoring and target setting technologies, in particular, are associated with pronounced negative impacts on mental and physical wellbeing as workers experience the extreme pressure of constant, real-time micro-management and automated assessment.”

Indeed, this links with the struggle of disconnecting from work and setting boundaries between working hours and private life, and digital technology and surveillance are contributing to the blurring of that line. 

Pakes says: “How we ensure that digital technology supports workers rather than adds to anxiety and stress is one of the big challenges we need to solve over the next three to five years.”

Taking action for workers’ rights 

The findings from Prospect also showed that “union members are twice as likely as non-union members to be consulted on the introduction of new technologies in their workplaces”. 

The APPG’s report also states that “workers do not understand how personal, and potentially sensitive, information is used to make decisions about the work that they do; and there is a marked absence of available routes to challenge or seek redress.”

This leads to a feeling of lack of accountability and mistrust towards AI technologies. 

Pakes says: “GDPR sets out some very clear rights for workers around surveillance, and a big concern is that not enough employers understand GDPR or their obligation to consult and inform workers around the introduction and use of software.”

He adds: “Our worry is that too often that is simply not happening and there needs to be much more pressure on government employers to fulfil their duties to protect our data rights and data privacy.”

Prospect’s polling also shows that four in five workers (80%) would like to see a ban on invasive webcam monitoring when working in their own homes. In this regard, Pakes says: “There’s a case for some of this technology to just not be allowed in the first place and we’d like to see real limits on some of the real creepy technology that’s coming in now, which is around emotional detection software and facial recognition software, which is entering a whole new realm of invasion in people’s working lives.”

“We’re calling for a new set of digital data rights from day one at work to ensure that employment rights, equality laws and data privacy are well understood and set out for workers and employers,” he adds.

How to track productivity

Whilst technology can help with managing the workforce, there need to be clear limits over the extent to which invasive control measures can be used against workers.

Minter says: “If you think you need to put surveillance cameras on your staff, then you’re not hiring the right people, so I don’t think there should ever be an excuse for surveillance of your team.”

Minter also believes that productivity should not be judged by the amount of hours someone sits at their desk as everyone has a different preferred working pace. What employers should look at to track productivity is whether their workers are meeting their deadlines and the quality of the work that is produced. 

“How, where and at what time your employee gets the job done is up to them,” she says. “What you should be concerned about, as an employer is ‘is this person getting the job done to the time I wanted it done and to the standards I wanted done?’. If the answer is yes, then everything else shouldn’t matter.”

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