In an era of evolving workplaces and the surge of remote working, employers must be unequivocal with staff regarding workplace monitoring—so says the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO). This stern warning is part of a broader initiative by the ICO to ensure that the rights and privacy of employees are preserved. The news comes amid findings that nearly one in five people believe they’ve been monitored by their employers. The Workers Union has been vocal about similar issues, as highlighted in our November 2021 article and our most recent piece from September 2022 that delved into the mistrust some managers harbour towards home-based employees.
Balancing Act of Monitoring
Monitoring in the workplace isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. It can range from tracking calls, messages, and keystrokes to taking screenshots, webcam footage, or audio recordings. Specialized monitoring software that traces digital activity is also increasingly being used. While the ICO’s guidance acknowledges the necessity for some level of monitoring, it emphasizes that such measures must be proportionate and respect the individual freedoms and rights of employees.
The Ripple Effects of Monitoring
Emily Keaney, Deputy Commissioner of the ICO, expressed her concern over intrusive monitoring practices, especially in the wake of increased flexible and remote working arrangements. “Our research shows that monitoring at work is a real cause for concern,” she stated. “If not conducted lawfully, monitoring can have a negative impact on an employee’s wellbeing and worsen the power dynamics that already exist in the workplace.” According to the ICO’s new guidelines, any data collected must be processed in line with existing data protection laws and be made accessible to staff upon request.
Age-Group Differences in Monitoring Perceptions
The ICO’s newly commissioned survey interestingly highlights a generational gap in perceptions around workplace monitoring. Younger staff, particularly those between the ages of 18 and 24, feel more surveilled compared to their older counterparts. Men, intriguingly, are more comfortable with monitoring than women. Despite these variances, a considerable majority of employees—70% of those surveyed—found the idea of being monitored by their employer intrusive.
ICO’s New Guidelines: A Step Towards Transparency
The ICO, which serves as the UK’s independent regulator for data protection and information rights laws, underlines that employees must be informed about any monitoring initiatives in language that is “easy to understand”. Furthermore, the monitoring must serve a “clearly defined purpose” and employ the “least intrusive means” to fulfil it.
Future Implications and the Shift Towards Hybrid Work
It’s important to note that these warnings and guidelines come at a time when working from home has become the norm for many, thanks to the ongoing pandemic. As per the Office for National Statistics, over eight in ten people who have worked from home during the pandemic plan to continue with hybrid work, marking a considerable shift in the work environment. This makes the ICO’s intervention timely and highly relevant.
The Workers Union Says…
“Clarity and respect for employees’ rights are essential in any monitoring practices. As more people pivot to remote or hybrid working conditions, understanding the limitations and legality of workplace monitoring has never been more crucial. The ICO’s new guidelines are a step in the right direction and are in line with The Workers Union’s ongoing efforts to educate and empower its members about their rights and responsibilities in this rapidly evolving workplace landscape.”