Surveillance: Who’s watching who when home working during coronavirus?

Wednesday July 15, 2020

The sudden risk to public health from coronavirus meant that major work and lifestyle changes were enforced almost overnight. Now, more than three months on since the UK was put into lockdown, some of those changes are still in place. Some may have forever impacted the world of work.

Adapting to change

Much of society has been given permission to reopen, however many office-based employees are still working from home. According to the Office for National Statistics, this was a staggering 49% of workers in mid-June.

The alternative for millions of others, who were unable to work from home, involved a period of furlough leave through the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme.

Government monitoring of furlough

The scheme now allows flexible furlough for part time working, but still has strict rules stating that no work can be carried out on days spent furloughed. HMRC has already confirmed investigation of employers in cases of non-compliance. However, penalties are not expected for genuine mistakes, and employers should have the chance to rectify them.

Employers who previously thought that remote teams could never work for their business may now be feeling differently in order to future proof their company. There are also considerable cost savings involved.

As technology continues to enhance our ability to communicate and work efficiently from almost anywhere, perhaps it won’t be long before remote working is considered to be the default. How might this impact the employer-employee relationship?

Working hard or hardly working

Some employees will have thrived during this time and may have found that they can focus more on tasks when away from the distractions of a bustling workplace. But homeworking is not suited to everyone. There could be others in the team that have found it difficult due to a lack of routine or collaborative atmosphere.

Working parents will have had to balance home working with home schooling whilst their kids have been unable to attend full time education. For many it has been a real conundrum and a big question arose as to whose job takes priority with both parents struggling.

It’s worth noting that pre-pandemic, homeworking had a bit of a stigma attached. If you were not seen to be working, you were perceived to not be working. This can ring true for a select few who will try to push the boundaries with their newfound freedom, but the opposite can also occur.

Those employees worried about the remote work stigma and fear losing their job could be overcompensating. They will be the ones sending emails out of hours and may need a welfare call. This is known as presenteeism which can lead to burnout and increased absences if not dealt with.

With such a complex mix of circumstances, employers may naturally be wondering how to get better visibility on employee output and well-being whilst employees are working from home.

Employee surveillance for remote work

Employee surveillance has been around for some time. Employers may use it as a safeguarding tool to monitor emails, personal use of company devices and so on.

Some surveillance software takes this a step further for managers wanting to monitor remote teams, by taking regular photos via employee webcams or tracking keystroke activity.

Many people may expect some level of surveillance, with the UK being considered as one of the most monitored countries in the world. A government crackdown on furlough fraud being a stark reminder.

But there are legal processes to be mindful of when it comes to workplace surveillance, and employees may not be so understanding at the prospect of being monitored in their own homes.

If not implemented well, employee surveillance software can end up doing more harm than good. It can damage trust which is the foundation upon which any employer-employee relationship should be built. This can cause stress and negatively affect productivity and well-being.

There are less intrusive ways to successfully manage remote teams. We feel that surveillance is rarely a substitution for good people management. It can, on occasions, be found to be unlawful. If you have questions about the legal and moral implications of employee surveillance and would like to discuss your options for remote team management in the long term, please give us a call.

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