Employee monitoring is on the rise in 2020: what does that mean for company trust?

There’s been an explosion in the number of employees working remotely as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic. But that home working exodus has also led to a dramatic increase in the number of employees monitoring their workers’ productivity.

The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically altered the way UK companies operate. Over the course of the last six months, brick-and-mortar retailers have been forced to pilot new online shops and supply chains have been completely rerouted.

But one of the biggest business changes to occur in 2020 has undeniably been the shift from office-based working to home working.

According to researchers at Mercer, only 22% of companies were ready for mass remote working prior to the COVID-19 outbreak. In fact, three out of four companies in the UK and EU reported that under a quarter of their staff had ever worked from home in the past.

Fast-forward from March to the end of October, and the UK’s corporate working practices have been turned upside down.

Now, 37% of companies have implemented mandatory work from home arrangements until further notice – with government advice in many parts of the UK continuing to be that those who can work from home should work from home.

Yet while homeworking teams are certainly beneficial for the UK in terms of public health, many employers have been left asking themselves: how productive are employees when they’re working from home?

And more important still, what can employers do to ensure teams are staying productive at home?

Are employees more productive working from home?

According to a number of studies, it’s been difficult for many UK employers to facilitate home working in the past.

Because so few companies were prepared to adopt mass home working policies, infrastructure has been a key issue. More than half of companies surveyed by Mercer at the start of the pandemic told researchers they had concerns over remote technology infrastructure, connectivity and communication levels. Unfortunately in some cases, these grounded fears have led to a lack of trust between employers.

Over 80% of employers say that they’re worried about virtual working’s impact on productivity in the current business environment. And as a result, one fifth of companies concede that more trust is needed between employers and employees before flexible working is ever going to take off permanently.

But according to data collected by telecommunications provider Talk Talk in September 2020, a majority of UK employees actually say that they’ve been more productive than ever while working away from the office.

Around 58% of all workers surveyed said they have gotten more done working from home than they would have ever achieved in the office. Likewise, a sizable portion of employers admit that the change has brought a number of positive effects to their companies.

Almost a third of company owners surveyed agreed that their teams had been more productive working from home during the pandemic, while 35% of employers said their teams had been more collaborative while working remotely.

How are workers increasing productivity at home? According to researchers, quite a few employees are gaining focus time by cutting out traditional office distractions.

In a survey conducted by the Harvard Business Review in August 2020, workers reported they were saving an average of 12% of their working day by avoiding large in-person meetings. Likewise, employees said they were regaining 9% of their day because they no longer had to interact with customers or external partners when working from home.

More importantly, that same study concluded that remote employees enjoy the work-related tasks they’re doing more when outside of the office.

The number of tasks workers describe as “tiresome” has dropped from 27% in the pre-COVID era to just 12% during the pandemic. Similarly, the number of tasks workers are offloading to others has dropped from 41% to 27%.

Bearing in mind that both employees and employers are reporting higher productivity and happiness levels, it’s hardly surprising to hear that a large number of employers are now preparing to permanently shift towards a more remote-oriented work culture.

A study by Gartner earlier this year revealed that 74% of companies are planning to continue mass remote working after the pandemic has subsided.

Of those planning to implement permanent home working policies, 77% of company owners said that allowing employees to work remotely would lead to substantially lower operating costs.

Yet even despite these benefits, many employers still understandably have their doubts about remote working. That’s why some company owners have chosen to monitor employees virtually to maximise productivity.

Using technology to monitor productivity

There are a wide range of digital tools that can be used to monitor employees – and that market has grown dramatically thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet with mass remote working trends set to continue even after eventually COVID disappears, research compiled by The Insight Partners is forecasting the global market for employee monitoring solutions to increase by 84% over the next seven years.

That represents a total market value of more than $1.3bn.

Hubstaff is one of the industry’s biggest players, and its Employee Monitoring Software suite has the ability to track app and URL activity on a number of devices, capture activity levels based on an employee’s keyboard and mouse usage, export timesheets and more.

Employers can even receive automated desktop screenshots periodically throughout the day to see what any given employee has on their computer screen.

While this sort of software is often described by privacy advocates as “corporate surveillance”, it does have practical applications that extend beyond productivity monitoring.

For example, Hubstaff’s time clock app uses geofencing technology to automatically identify when a worker has shown up to or left a desired work location. That totally eliminates the need for workers to waste time completing a physical (or even digital) timesheet every time they start or finish work for the day.

Another market leader in productivity monitoring is the US-based vendor Teramind.

Teramind offers a range of tracking systems including a keystroke logger that records every word typed during the day, a file transfer tracking system, a social media monitoring system that identifies when and for how long employees are spending on social media sites and more.

On average, analysts say that using one of these types of services costs a company around $7 per month to monitor a single employee. Bearing in mind the cash that employers stand to save in operating expenses by allowing employees to work remotely, that surveillance cost is fairly low.

That being said, employee monitoring isn’t without its own set of dangers.

According to researchers at Accenture, 52% of employees say that employee monitoring damages trust. A further 64% of workers say that being monitored makes them trust their employer less.

In October 2019, internet giant Google made headlines for all the wrong reasons after several employees accused the company of using surveillance tools to monitor employee gatherings.

And in the UK and European Union, there could be legal implications for monitoring remote workers.

The EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) adopted by the UK in 2018 introduced a wide range of new privacy laws which dictate how employers process the personal data of their workers.

GDPR rules generally place ownership of data in the hands of individual workers – and so in many cases, recording and processing data that relates to an individual worker could result in non-compliance.

That being said, it is still possible to monitor certain corporate activity in the UK. This must begin with a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) to demonstrate why the monitoring activity is necessary from a business point-of-view and how the data will be used.

Honesty and transparency

In some cases, monitoring employees at home generates mistrust and could ultimately result in legal action if data is mishandled in any way.

That being said, it’s important to note that many employees are actually open to the idea of workplace monitoring – but only on a number of conditions.

Researchers at Accenture found that 92% of workers are ok with their employers collecting data on them and their work if it is being done specifically to improve their performance or well-being.

Similarly, 62% of employees say they’d be willing to exchange their work-related data in exchange for customized compensation, rewards or benefits. Roughly the same number of workers would exchange their personal work data for learning and development opportunities.

As a result, it’s definitely possible to monitor remote workers in a certain capacity, but only if there’s a clear remit and understanding between employees and their employer. That means introducing transparency and explaining what sorts of activity will be monitored and why.

According to one survey by Gartner, only 30% of workers said they were comfortable with their employers monitoring emails. But when the employer explained to workers exactly why they planned to monitor emails, that same study found 50% of employees were ok having their emails read.

Likewise, analysts say it’s critical for employers engaging in employee monitoring schemes to offer their workers a way to appeal decisions about their careers that may have been influenced by the data collected.

Generally speaking, no employer should take the decision to monitor employees lightly. There are serious trust and legal implications that need to be considered. Yet if a strong business case can be made for that monitoring, and its purpose is explained to employees, research does indicate it’s possible to effectively monitor remote workers in a safe and responsible way.

Check out the Linnear COSEC knowledge centre to ensure your business stays up-to-date on the latest industry news, or get in touch to find out how our company secretarial services can drastically reduce your costs and free up your time to help you focus on running your business.

About the author

Nicholas joined in 2018 to set up the Company Secretarial Department in the group’s company formation divisions. After establishing the department, he was a key stakeholder in the development of Linnear CoSec. Prior to joining the group, Nicholas worked in a variety of client-facing positions at an international provider of corporate services, caring for a diverse portfolio of companies. He is a Chartered Secretary and Governance Professional, and holds a bachelor's degree in Politics as well as a Masters in Corporate Governance.

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