Employers are watching remote workers and they’re monitoring these activities

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While many employers are tapping technologies to monitor workflows, a new report highlights potential drawbacks and even resentment among surveilled employees.

Image: GettyImages/Laurence Dutton

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Employers are increasingly using monitoring software to keep an eye on day-to-day operations. In fact, 75% of work conversations could be recorded and assessed by 2025, according to Gartner. On Thursday, ExpressVPN published the results of a recent survey highlighting workforce sentiments regarding telecommuting, employer monitoring software and more. While many employers are tapping these technologies to monitor workflows, the report highlights potential drawbacks and even resentment among surveilled employees.

“Employee monitoring has always been an important privacy issue, but the pandemic has ushered in a new era of heightened surveillance that is incredibly concerning. In addition to fracturing the level of trust between an employee and an employer, it can make the workplace a hostile environment for workers and puts us one dangerous step closer towards the normalization of surveillance,” said Harold Li, vice president of ExpressVPN in a press release.

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Employers “uneasy” about WFH

In the last year, many companies have adopted remote work policies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Nearly three-quarters of employers (74%) said telecommuting “makes them feel a lack of control over their business” and a similar number (69%) said the work model makes them feel “uneasy” since “they can’t observe employees in person.”

About six in 10 employers (57%) said they don’t trust their employees to work “without in-person supervision” and a similar number (59%) reported the same sentiment about employees working “without digital supervision.” The vast majority of bosses (78%) and/or executives said they use software to “track employee performance and/or online activity” and more than half (57%) have incorporated these technologies in the last six months, according to ExpressVPN.

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SEE: IT expense reimbursement policy (TechRepublic Premium)

The most common activities monitored by employers include web history and the amount of time on these sites (66%), apps used and time spent using these apps (53%) as well as screen monitoring in real time (53%). Additional monitored activities include “active work hours” and log times (46%), “periodic screen capture” (33%) and chats and messaging logs (30%). Regularly recorded communication sources include email (94%), calls (87%), messages (85%) and video (87%).

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The report also lists various “surveillance activities suspected by employees” and this includes “active work hours” and log times (47%), email (inbound and outbound) (37%), web history and time spent browsing these pages (34%) as well as chats and message logs (33%).

The survey found that 81% of employees are using at least one company-issued device and about half of the respondent employees (53%) know their company is “actively monitoring their communication and online activities.” About 17% didn’t know it was even possible for companies to “monitor their communication and/or online activities.”

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Data-based performance reviews and employment

On the employer side, virtually all respondents (90%) said they “actively track time spent by employees doing work [versus] other activities unrelated to work.” About three-quarters said that stored recordings (calls, messages and emails) have “informed an employee’s performance reviews” and 46% said they had fired a worker based on “information collected related to their remote work.”

SEE: Juggling remote work with kids’ education is a mammoth task. Here’s how employers can help (free PDF) (TechRepublic)

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One-third of employees said they have used a company computer for “purposes that they’d find embarrassing should their employer find out.” These potentially embarrassing purposes include using a work computer to chat and communicate with a partner or friends, web searches around medical subjects or “potentially embarrassing bodily functions.” Other listed uses include chats or messages with other employees (41%), “visiting job application websites” (40%) and web searches around their romantic life (37%).

Employees stressed about monitoring software

The report also delves into the stresses and anxieties these surveillance tools can cause employees. For example, 59% of employees report “feeling stress and/or anxiety about their employer surveilling their online activity.” Other top stressors include people “constantly wondering whether they’re being watched” (41%), feeling pressured to work extended work hours (36%) and taking less frequent breaks (32%).

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Nearly half of employees (43%) believe that monitoring software is a “violation of trust” and 28% of employees say these tools make them feel “unappreciated.” One-quarter (26%) said these monitoring tools make them “feel resentment.”

Working around surveillance tools

People are finding ways to work around monitoring software, according to the report, and this includes deploying anti-surveillance programs (31%) and researching “hacks to fake online activity” (25%). 

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In the future, 59% of employers said they are somewhat or very likely to incorporate surveillance software and 21% said they’re “unlikely to inform” their staff if they did use these capabilities. More than half of employees said they are likely to quit if their company and/or boss uses “surveillance measures” and one-quarter would take a pay cut to avoid these tools.

Methodology

The survey was held from April 15 through 21 and involved 2,000 employers and 2,000 fully remote or hybrid workers.

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