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Workplace monitoring on the rise

More than a quarter of UK workers have said that monitoring and surveillance at work has increased since Covid.

In 2021, the percentage of workers reporting workplace surveillance and monitoring also rose to 60% up from 53% in 2020.

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Speaking to HR magazine Ian MacRae, author and head of work psychology at Clear Review, said though unsurprising surveillance has risen in the pandemic, he believes it is a sign of poor management.

He said: “Unnecessary surveillance isn't good for the psychological wellbeing of workers, and it's not good for productivity. 

“Employees should have clear workplace expectations, performance management criteria and targets. If employees are meeting their objectives, there is no need to be spying on your employees' webcams, reading their emails or tracking their every movement.”

Monitoring, he added, is just a digital form of micromanagement: “Micromanaging and excessive surveillance leads to exhaustion and higher staff turnover.”

Surveillance technology includes the monitoring of emails and files, webcams on work computers, keystroke tracking, and recording of phone calls and movements.

In the data, published by the Trades Union Congress (TUC), 24% of workers reported monitoring of their devices in 2021, up from 20% in 2020.

A further 14% said calls were monitored in 2021, compared with 11% in 2020.

Norman Pickavance, CEO of the Financial Inclusion Alliance, argued that monitoring is modern Taylorism – the belief that all work can be analysed and efficiency improved. 

But, by comparison, it is more invasive.

He told HR magazine: “Modern monitoring requires total attention, often 100% of the time. Of course some employers will say this is a good thing, because that is what they are paying for, and Britain needs a productivity boost.

“But I believe we should pause to consider the psychological implications of what employers are doing.”

By removing autonomy, Pickavance said that employers will increase workplace stress, de-humanise workers and reduce productivity.

He added: “If that is the case then [employers] should think twice before using technology to take us back to Taylorism and the 1920s and reflect instead on how to truly bring the best out of people.”

Concerned that the use of such technology is “spiralling out of control” the TUC has called on government to increase worker protections for surveillance and “management by algorithm".

Reiterating a manifesto on artificial intelligence (AI) in work it launched last year, its recommendations include a statutory duty on employers to consult trade unions before using AI or automated decision-making systems, and a right to disconnect to be included in the UK’s upcoming redraft of the employment bill.

The TUC is also calling for a right to human review of high-risk decisions made by technology, for example hiring and firing.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady commented: “Worker surveillance tech has taken off during this pandemic – and now risks spiralling out of control.”

“Workers must be properly consulted on the use of AI, and be protected from its punitive ways of working.”