The coronavirus pandemic forced millions of UK staff members to work from home to contain the spread of the virus.
With employees working out of sight and out of earshot, some line managers may be growing concerned about how productively they are working when at home, particularly with recent research highlighting that some staff are skiving for two hours per day.
This may result in employers investing in surveillance software to keep tabs on people throughout the working day.
As such, a tech start-up is rolling out machine-learning software that will gauge how quickly staff complete workplace tasks and will also provide them with a ‘productivity score’.
The MIT Technology Review reported that the technology will suggest ways that staff can speed up duties.
In addition, it has been reported that managers can use individual employee ‘productivity scores’ to make decisions about which staff members are worthy of keeping or letting go.
‘Mutual trust underpins employment relationships’
Yet, workplace surveillance tools like this have received criticism from legal experts about the damage that they can cause to the employer-employee relationship.
Padma Tadi, a Senior Associate in the employment team at Irwin Mitchell, told HR Grapevine: “Mutual trust and confidence underpins all employment relationships and any surveillance should be necessary and proportionate in the circumstances and, in most cases, transparent.
“Employers should consider if there are any other less intrusive methods available to achieve the same outcome and be able to justify the reason and method of monitoring. It is also important to ensure that the data collected is processed in line with GDPR legislation and staff are made aware of any tracking." Padi added:
“Failure to do so gives rise to a risk of constructive dismissal claims, allegations of breaches to rights to privacy and GDPR related complaints to the Information Commissioner.”
CEO of the software firm Enaible – which is developing this new machine-learning – Tommy Weir, told the MIT Technology Review that he felt most workplace surveillance didn’t go far enough and that workplace monitoring will likely stick around in future.
“Imagine you’re managing somebody and you could stand and watch them all day long, and give them recommendations on how to do their job better. That’s what we’re trying to do,” Weir explained.
According to ZD Net, the new tech will use a Trigger-Task-Time algorithm which is meant to learn about the timeframes needed to complete tasks and the triggers that lead to different tasks. The employee is then given a ‘productivity score’ between 0 and 100.
Spike in employee surveillance
The news of this tool comes as numerous outlets have reported on a spike in the number of employers buying spy software to keep tabs on remote workers.
Some organisations have installed software on employee laptops so that they can monitor how much time is spent online and which websites are being visited.
In a recent interview with The Telegraph, Edgar Ndjatou, Director at Workplace Fairness, said that employees should always assume that, when handed a work device by an employer, “they are either tracking the location or software you are using or will at some point do an audit of the devices to see what you have been up to, and that it is all legal”.
Previous reports have detailed the different ways in which employers can monitor remote workers.
HR Grapevine recently detailed three different ways, among other things, that employers can spy on remote staff, including via Zoom conference calls, private messages through platforms such as Slack and methods such as keystroke monitoring.
'Monitoring may make staff uncomfortable'
Barry Stanton, Partner at law firm Boyes Turner, told HR Grapevine that with so many workers on payroll, it is unsurprising that employers may be concerned about whether staff are working to full capacity or not.
“Business owners might think that if employees know they are being monitored, that will be enough to ensure they will work harder,” he explained.
“However, knowing they are being monitored may be uncomfortable for many workers, who could see it as an intrusion into their private space and it could, in fact, have the opposite effect from that intended by causing stress and anxiety. It also does not take into account the different and more flexible working patterns that many remote workers appreciate.
“And while some may not mind being monitored, for others it could undermine bonds of trust between employer and employee which can lead to a variety of issues,” Stanton added.
When it comes to alternative ways to drive productivity, the legal expert said there are several things HR can try.
For example, setting clear goals, deadlines and expected outcomes will ensure that everyone is on the same page.
If employees are given all of the information at the start, then they will know what is expected of them and what deadline to work towards.
“In addition to helping with trust and anxiety issues, this has the benefit of taking up less managerial time in monitoring employees,” Stanton concluded.