Remote surveillance: what are the rules?

August 3rd, 2021

Despite the fact that businesses are keen to get workers back into offices, the majority of bosses in the UK think that remote working or telecommuting is here to stay. In fact, up to 86% of UK bosses believe that we’ve shifted more towards working from home, and that the old 9-5 routine has gone the way of the dodo. It may be a little too early to say for sure that we’re now a nation of Zoomers, dependent on a good Wi-Fi connection and a quiet room away from the family in which to work. But the odds are definitely stacked in favour of home-working from now on.

However, that leaves bosses with a bit of a conundrum. How do you make sure that your staff are at their desks when they say they are, and not taking the dog out for a walk? Or if a lunch break has turned into an afternoon in the park with the kids?

Employee surveillance has always been a bone of contention, but the change in how we work has seen a big rise in the number of employers looking for remote surveillance software. So is Big Brother watching you? And are they allowed to keep a watch on your working patterns if you’re away from the office?

The problems with remote surveillance

Employers may go down the surveillance road to monitor employee’s workload and productivity and manage overtime demands. However, this concept of keeping an eye on your employees using what could be considered as ‘legal spyware’ could have some negative effects which could have an impact on the employee’s wellbeing and – in turn – their productivity.

The feeling of having the boss remotely looking over your shoulder using software with evocative names like ‘StaffCop’ and ‘CleverControl’ could also fuel resentment that the employee isn’t trusted by their employer. This negative spiral could quite easily get out of control, resulting in a breakdown of relationships between bosses and their homeworking employees.

Within months of Covid-19 changing working patterns, it’s estimated that around 16% of companies installed tracking software on the laptops of employees working from home. By July 2020, that number had climbed to around 26%. Not exactly the best way to build up a trusting working relationship.

Is it legal?

Technically, yes. However, there are concerns regarding compliance with data protection legislation, in particular GDPR rules, which dictate how personal data is stored and used, and what you have to tell your staff.

If staff feel that your surveillance methods are too draconian or do not feel that the storage and use of their data are adequately protected or, indeed, justified, they could raise a grievance that could result in a tribunal. Not only could that be financially costly, but it could do some lasting damage to company morale as well.

Legally speaking, employers don’t have to tell employees that they’re being tracked. However, withholding that information, and then your employees finding out anyway, could leave you open to some serious challenges, both under the GPRD regulations on data collation and storage and if the worst happens, in a tribunal.

How to keep everyone happy

The best approach for employers is to be totally open about their activities, and to demonstrate to their team that they are adhering to all privacy regulations regarding personal data. The best way to do this is to include a policy that explains exactly what your reasons are for checking screens and online activity, and then sharing it with your entire workforce. Remember to include the reasoning for the surveillance, what is being monitored and how data is stored. Avoid invasive tactics, and definitely avoid an ‘accept it or leave’ approach to implementation.

If you’re an employer who wants to ensure they’re treading the right line when it comes to remote workforce surveillance, or if you’re an employee who feels that you’re being unfairly singled out for surveillance, talk to a legal expert specializing in employment law today.