Two years ago working from home was a rare luxury: something you might do as an occasional one-off or as you recovered from an illness. Then came the pandemic and suddenly WFH – it soon became an acronym – went mainstream.
As the vaccine roll-out accelerated people gradually returned to the office – but there is an acceptance among both employers and employees that the pandemic has irreversibly changed the way we work. People do not want to spend two hours a day commuting: they’ve discovered they can be just as productive at their kitchen table: and that they rather like that their work/life balance has tilted towards ‘life…’
…But bosses want to know what their staff are doing. Are they really working? Or are they looking suspiciously tanned on the days they do come into the office?
This has led to charges that employers are spying on their staff when they are working from home, with electronic monitoring by companies rising sharply.
“It was creepy,” said one engineer quoted in a BBC article. “One of my managers was watching people’s personal computers to monitor what we were doing at home – all the time, not just when we were working.”
Can employers do this? Is it legal? Unsurprisingly, there are grey areas. Simply put, it is legal for your boss to track your work. “However,” says Boma Adoki, an employment expert at a Surrey-based law firm, “your boss does not have free rein to track his or her staff as they please.”
Employees clearly have a right to privacy: by the same token, employers also owe an implied duty of trust to their staff. And yet invasive forms of checking, such as keystroke monitoring (logging everything you type on a computer or mobile keyboard) and screen mirroring are still allowed – and, very clearly, surveillance technology is improving all the time.
Does your boss need to tell you if they are monitoring you remotely? While it is difficult for an employer to justify, it is not illegal. Employers do not have to obtain the consent of their staff to use spyware technology.
Undoubtedly, this is a hugely difficult area – and in the short term it is likely to get more difficult. Portugal has just banned bosses from messaging and emailing staff out of working hours as part of new laws dubbed the ‘right to rest’. You wouldn’t bet against a similar measure being introduced here, and perhaps the balance is gradually moving in favour of the employee.
It will, however, be a slow process and – as we mentioned above – technological advances favour the employer. So what should you do if you feel that your employer is carrying out unwarranted or over-the-top surveillance? Every case is different and this is clearly not legal advice, but common sense suggests that raising your concerns informally may be the best starting point, before any formal procedures are begun.
Unquestionably, this issue is not going away. The pandemic has changed working practices: people are going to spend far more time working from home. And employers will always want assurance that they are spending that time on next year’s cash flow forecast – not last-minute Christmas shopping…