Earlier this month, Sports Direct owner Frasers Group revealed that it had banned employees from working from home on Fridays.
According to the memo seen by The Sun, the move was attributed to “too many instances where people or teams were unable to get in touch when needed.”
COO David Al-Mudallal added that the group has become aware of employees “who demonstrate through their social media profiles that they do not treat Friday as a work day.”
Frasers Group’s announcement may send chills down the spines of many who have been used to logging in from home for more than two years, especially as the motivation for ending the policy allegedly came from social media surveillance.
The most common of these is checking people’s mouse movements.
Companies are now investing in more targeted technology to keep track of what employees are doing.
“Some of the programs involve things like accidentally turning on the camera on the device to take a photo or video of what’s going on,” explains Darag O’Brien, chief executive of consulting firm Castlebridge.
Other monitoring methods, including taking screenshots from time to time to make sure employees are focused on the current task, or turning on the microphone at random intervals.
“The most common is to test people’s mouse or keyboard movements to make sure they work,” Mr. O’Brien added.
The pandemic has raised employee awareness that their activities are being monitored as the initial two weeks of work from home has evolved into a series of severe restrictions.
“Managers in general didn’t know how to manage staff remotely, they didn’t have the ability to measure your performance,” explains Dr. Laura Bambrick, head of social policy and employment at the Irish Trades Union Congress.
“The real way to get around this is trust, which is critical to a remote work organization.”
According to Linda Hynes, a partner at law firm Lewis Silkin, the monitoring also came as companies wondered if employees who may have chosen to work abroad during the lockdown could be traced.
Ms. Hines points to the various frameworks that employers must comply with: the European Convention on Human Rights, which gives the right to privacy, as well as the GDPR data protection law.
“It’s a pretty tricky balance between how far an employer can go in protecting their legitimate business interests and how intrusive they can be in terms of monitoring,” Hines says.
She notes that the more invasive it becomes, the more difficult it is to justify in terms of data protection.
If an employer is planning covert surveillance, they must complete a Data Protection Impact Assessment, which outlines the potential risks to employees or even to the personal data of third parties.
It also depends on the context, whether it’s performance monitoring or more serious issues like criminal activity or the disclosure of sensitive business information.
If, like the Frasers Group, social media accounts are also being monitored, this should be included in the company’s privacy and social media policies, Ms Hines adds.
Employees must also be clearly informed about what is going on behind the scenes. “It should be limited in time and should be laid out very clearly to you,” Ms Bambrick says.
However, according to Mr. O’Brien, there have been instances where the software has been running in the background without the knowledge of employees, which is “blatantly illegal.”
Aside from the potential legal pitfalls, remote monitoring may not even solve the problem it was supposed to solve. Activity tracking may not equate to productivity tracking.
Mr. O’Brien says tools are often impractical and recorded data often doesn’t reflect progress in work that requires creativity or research, adding that people can also “cheat the system” by buying gadgets that move a mouse in their name.
There is also a more serious risk of data breaches. Screen capture software may capture confidential documents opened on desktop computers or personal information of third parties. If a photo of a person’s home shows other residents, it can also violate the right to privacy in the home.
“The mere fact that you are taking a screenshot and storing it elsewhere, not necessarily secure, raises a huge concern about your ability as a company to comply with your customers’ privacy requirements and obligations under data protection law,” said Mr. notes O’Brien.
Ms Bambrick points to further discussion about how companies dependent on AI tools are growing. Artificial intelligence is now being used in almost every step of the hiring process, from initial application to monitoring and even layoff decisions.
Unions are calling for policy reform to protect workers.
According to Ms. Bambrick, state legislation needs to be updated to establish policies regarding hybrid work and employee control.
“The EU is considering [this issue] so it’s only a matter of time before we get an EU directive on this. The Irish government needs to move forward and review existing labor laws,” she says.
“They were written for the time when we worked at the workplace of the employer. Are they fit for this purpose now that we are working from our homes?”
In the meantime, managers can measure activity with traditional methods. Mr. O’Brien says his staff is measured by how long it takes to complete a task and whether it was completed on time.
He believes that companies should spend money training managers to work with hybrid teams rather than invest in software.
“In the office, does the employer consider it appropriate for someone to stand behind the employee with a stopwatch and a Polaroid camera?” he asked.
However, in addition to new technologies, employees must beware of the most powerful surveillance tool of all, the observing eye of others and the resulting gossip.
“In my experience, issues related to what is happening on social media can come to the attention of the employer through other employees,” Ms Hines concludes.