Maintaining Remote Workforce Productivity Without Peaking Privacy Concerns

Employee monitoring is not a new concept. In highly regulated sectors - such as finance and trading - surveillance has been seen as a necessity for many years. These businesses have long used monitoring software for safety and compliance purposes, keeping an eye on staff emails and activity during working hours to protect data, intellectual property, and personal information.

However, outside of regulatory use, employee-monitoring software has traditionally been a low priority for most companies. Then came the coronavirus outbreak, forcing businesses of all shapes and sizes to adapt in a variety of manners in order to survive. The mass migration to remote working – as a means of meeting government guidelines and keeping employees safe - brought with it a vast array of challenges. 

One topic that has been particularly high on the boardroom agenda in recent months is the need to maintain high levels of productivity. With entire global economies under immense pressure, the desire for profitability has never been higher. This has generated a new surge in popularity for surveillance technologies, all designed to monitor productivity at a never-before seen level, but as the market for this technology grows, so too do concerns around employee privacy.

Productivity at the risk of privacy

Many manufacturers of workplace-monitoring tools have logged a significant increase in orders since the coronavirus outbreak. One such company, Teramind, reports that new business inquiries tripled month over from mid-March to mid-April. This growth has continued since then, with about a third of the company’s 2,000 clients requesting additional licenses to track more users.

Whilst it’s understandable that, in the wake of a global pandemic, survival – and therefore productivity – is critical for any and every business, recent developments in the space mean that some companies are taking surveillance to the extreme.

In today’s landscape, the sophistication of employee monitoring software is staggering. Many products are designed to monitor activity at a never-before-seen level. Under the guise of keeping employees safe online, these technologies are often used to monitor web browsing, record the amount of time spent on an application and track internet activity. Some can even track physical location using GPS and access employee webcams.

This extreme level of tracking is seen by many as an invasion of employee privacy; both intrusive and offensive. It also raises lots of questions around legality and organizations using these tools could find themselves falling foul of regulations - such as the GDPR - if they are not careful.

In its simplest form, most elements of employee monitoring are legal under GDPR, as long as employees are both aware and in agreement. That said, there are several exceptions and situational factors that can make employee surveillance a bit of a mindfield to navigate.

What makes employee monitoring so difficult from a legal perspective, is that the GDPR is a European legislation. As such, it permits member states to enact it alongside national legislation and adopt rules specific to particular situations. This means that globally, expectations and rules around employee monitoring can vary drastically.

For example, in France, where biometrics is widely used to track employees, the national Data Protection Authority (CNIL) has issued regulations that restrict companies from collecting most biometric data - these rules are even stricter than the GDPR.

Meanwhile, just across the border in Switzerland, which is not an EU member, authorities are running checks to ensure employers comply with laws that require they record hours worked by employees. To capture this employee data, which is a legal requirement, Swiss companies are also using sophisticated technologies like voice, fingerprint, and facial recognition. This contrasting view on what is - and what isn’t - acceptable under the law highlights the challenges and difficulties of implementing a global employee monitoring policy.

When companies fail to comply, the consequences can be severe. Last month, Barclays was the latest in a long line of organizations to come under fire, with the UK Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) launching an investigation into its use of employee monitoring software.

The company reportedly adopted a tool which tracked how long employees were away from their desks and how much time they were spending on tasks for an 18-month period. For breaching the GDPR, the bank is currently facing a maximum penalty of 4% of its annual global turnover, which could amount to £865 million.

Creating a culture of transparency

Beyond the issue of non-compliance - and the hefty fines associated with it - employee monitoring can also have a detrimental impact on company culture. Creating an environment in which individuals constantly feel under supervision can be bad for team morale, positioning managers and those reporting into them as rivals. Adopting these technologies can act as a declaration of mistrust, killing creativity and, in the worst cases, destroying any sense of employee loyalty.

The reality is a remote workforce can be equally, if not more, productive as their in-office counterparts, as long as they are set up for success. In order to avoid alienating employees and encroaching on their privacy, whilst still ensuring overall productivity, businesses should redirect their attention away from constant surveillance measures and towards discovering other ways to maintain structure and keep motivation levels high.

The first step towards establishing a positive remote working culture is ensuring transparency and collaboration throughout an organization, regardless of where employees are based. While most companies provide the basic equipment, communication apps, and meeting software, more is needed.

Versatile, configurable collaborative work management platforms that centralize work and act as a single source of truth, whilst providing 360-degree visibility into project status, can help to ensure that everyone within a business is on the same page, regardless of employee work location. Automated reminders, real-time dashboards and a single view of tasks will mean that each individual can select the tools and technologies that they prefer, bringing in an element of choice and putting employees back in the driving seat.

Once the tools for collaboration are in place, in order to ensure that productivity continues throughout an organization, it is essential to keep track of what has been tried, tested and - most importantly successful.

Identifying and tracking key objectives and results can not only help to motivate individuals but ensure alignment across an entire organization. If transparency is encouraged and everyone is set common objectives, progress can easily be monitored without the need for surveillance technologies.

With remote working here to stay for many organizations, there has never been a better time to take a step back and think about how to boost productivity levels. Whilst surveillance technologies are increasing in popularity, business leaders must ask themselves whether they can risk the privacy pitfalls that come alongside them and the mistrust it causes.

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