Dear Employer, Are You Eavesdropping or Engaging?

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Deagreez

As a business term, employee engagement has something positive about it. It suggests an equal relationship with the employer in which the employee’s voice is heard and valued.

But what about when employee engagement becomes employee listening, eavesdropping, or even spying? How should we feel about it then?

Is it the right of the employer to know what the employee does on the time they are paying for, or is that trumped by the right to privacy? Are elements of employee listening even legal?

Remote working raises new questions

One story which keeps on giving during the COVID-19 disruptions in the human resources area has been the work from home phenomena.

It has impacted everything from collaboration and office real estate to ideas about remuneration.

On one hand, shouldn’t the employer be paying for a lot more, like power and internet and insurance in the home?

Some employers, like the big tech companies, have responded by saying that remuneration should be based on location and postcode.

If an employee lives in a geography where the cost of living is cheap, then they don’t need to be paid as much. Not much difference between that as an idea and the concept of offshoring to cheaper locations.

But back to employee listening, a subject prompted by a new brochure which landed in the inbox from SAP, promoting their Qualtrics Employee Engagement module which they subtitle as “engagement in disruption.”

“Help your managers ensure that employees remain engaged and productive in disruption, so your organization can scale back up quickly and find its new normal,” says SAP.

“With the disruption caused by COVID-19, organizations have been forced to reassess their approach to employee engagement programs,” the company continued.

“Organizations need focused insights on themes such as workplace safety, remote work enablement, inclusion, mental health and morale, productivity, work/life balance and more.”

All fair enough, and it makes sense to deepen engagement on all these issues while employees are dispersed, and tracking workflow and productivity is difficult.

Over surveillance becomes real

While there is no suggestion that the SAP module is overly intrusive or even covert (perhaps it depends on the settings), there is a whole other story out there now about employees kicking back against their employers for over surveillance.

One of the big areas for this is mouse moving tracking, where it is possible for an employer to know if the employee is at the computer working away.

Mouse movement tracking firm Hubstaff has reportedly seen demand for its product treble in 2020. Employees are responding by downloading software from Move Mouse, so they appear to be at their computers while they might be at the gym.

Then there is Kickidler, a company promoting a software tool which keeps records on how many hours people spend on assigned tasks.

In the U.K., a July survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that over half of employees believed they were being monitored, and 86% said they thought this would become even more common in the future.

Still in the U.K., major bank Barclays is being investigated by the privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), over allegations it spied on its staff and tracked how they spent their time.

So, it seems the world of employee computer monitoring software will only get bigger. If you’re interested, check out companies like VeriClock, Monitask, ActivTrak or Time Doctor.

We need a new balance

There is an interpretation of privacy laws and data protection legislation in some countries — once again the U.K. — which suggests that employee monitoring is an intrusion in whatever context.

Employees, after all, are working from home which is the ultimate private location.

While it is easy for the idea of employee monitoring to fuel paranoid thoughts, we need to strike a balance on this. This will require negotiation and codification in workplace agreements, laws, and in privacy and data protection regimes.

In the U.S., for example, states such as Connecticut and Delaware prohibit employers from electronically monitoring employees without prior notice.

Clearly, the idea of prior notice and consent is key. Right now, it seems that a battleground is being pitched between employer and employee rights, and the more productive approach is to defuse the escalation and begin again with a discussion around what is fair and reasonable.

We need to reboot remote working

The pandemic has upended so many workplace norms and exposed so many cracks in the remote working model that it needs to be entirely re-engineered, with a framework based on transparency and consent. Otherwise, we are heading for a whole new area of dispute, and it could get very bitter and ugly.

The digital workplace, even if it is a home, requires a framework of digital practices and rights. Yet, the problem is that change has happened too fast, and our understanding of digital rights and responsibilities is lagging.

The corporate world seems pre-occupied with survival right now. But it needs to deal with this question about digital rights sooner rather than later.

Photo credit: iStockphoto/Deagreez