Accounting giant EY has been monitoring UK employees’ office attendance with a ‘turnstile’ tracking system, according to reports.
The Financial Times (FT) reported that the Big Four firm has been utilising swipe card entry data to track when employees are coming to and from the office, and cracking down on hybrid employees who aren’t hitting their quota for time spent in office.
A source told the FT that the data would act as a “carrot rather than a stick”, strongly encouraging employees to follow the in-office guidelines.
Around 50% of some departments at EY’s head office were failing to meet the minimum two days in-office per week, the FT claimed.
EY declined to comment on the matter, but a source told the FT that the company did not have a “firm-wide policy” around using office data to influence workers’ attendance rates.
Is the future of work back in the office?
As the debate over the future of flexible working shows no signs of slowing, EY's decision highlights the ongoing challenges companies face in striking a balance between remote and office-based work.
Working from home is a modern phenomenon. Prior to 2020, working from home was the exception, not the rule. The proportion reporting that they worked exclusively at home rose from 5.7% of workers in January/February 2020 to 43.1% in April 2020, according to data from the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research and Data.
However, whilst 58% of workers preferring to work in a hybrid model, only around 14% of the UK workforce are currently working from home more than they go into the office, according to ONS data. And a newly published study from Virgin Media O2 found that 4 in 10 UK firms have already returned to the office full-time.
Therefore, the tension between employer directives and employee preferences is clear. And, it underscores the continued turbulence facing business as the evolving nature of work arrangements in a post-pandemic world shift.
Firms clamping down on hybrid staff
EY is far from the first business to impose measures to influence the amount of time employees are coming into the office.
In August 2023, leaked emails revealed that Amazon employees were being tracked and warned about spending enough time in the office, after the company imposed a return-to-office mandate earlier last year in March.
In a Q&A session held that same month, CEO Andy Jassy told staff: “It’s past the time to disagree and commit. If you can’t disagree and commit, it’s probably not going to work out for you at Amazon because we are going back to the office at least three days a week.”
Many employees had moved away from the offices they were once based in, due to the rise of remote working spurred by the pandemic. Many others were hired mid or post-pandemic, meaning they have only ever been used to a remote or hybrid work environment.
Consequently, many employees were faced with the difficult task of upping sticks in order to meet their three-day office week mandate.
‘Employers must be clear about the purpose of monitoring’
Gerard O’Hare, Legal Director at employment law and HR consultancy firm WorkNest, offered his thoughts on the issue to HR Grapevine.
“The news that EY, one of the Big Four, has started to monitor the office attendance of its UK employees to stem the flouting of its hybrid working guidelines will be seen by some as Orwellian. In some ways it is. Watching employee movements by monitoring swipe card entry data certainly sounds like Big Brother,” he said.
“However, this news will not be particularly surprising for HR professionals. Not because all employers monitor staff in this way, but because EY’s reasons for doing so will likely resonate deeply in the HR community. Employers across the land have, in one way or another, grappled with employee office attendance in the post-Covid era.
“Hybrid working has become the new norm, but that is not to say it isn’t being abused by some rogue employees attempting to minimise office time – it is. Some employers are therefore having to resort to such techniques to ensure adherence to hybrid working rules.”
He went on: “Employers should tread carefully when deciding whether to monitor workers and carefully balance its business interests against workers’ rights and freedoms under data protection law,” he said, adding: “Employers must be clear about the purpose of any monitoring and select the least intrusive means to achieve it.”
What the law says
O’Hare explained that, from a legal standpoint, there is no specific law in the UK which governs monitoring of employees. However, he warned that employers must heed the regulatory framework developed over recent years including: Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights (the right to respect for private and family life and correspondence – increasingly important due to the rise of homeworking); everyone’s favourite – UK GDPR; and the ICO’s guidance on monitoring workers which is intended to assist employers comply with their obligations under the UK GDPR.
Impact on morale, trust and talent attraction?
O’Hare went on to outline some of the other implications that tracking staff could have on the workplace, stating: “Legal considerations aside, others considering deploying such methods will be well advised to consider the potential side effects. It may, for example, result in an erosion of trust thus leading to a decline in staff morale and productivity as well as negatively impacting staff retention and making it trickier to attract new talent.
“These clearly undesirable potential outcomes would need to be borne in mind, but companies could mitigate against them by ensuring the correct messaging around the reasons for the monitoring in the first place.
“Done correctly, and for the right reasons, there should be no issue with other employers taking a leaf out of EY’s book and it needn’t be a case of “Big Brother is watching you”.