‘Productivity’ in a pandemic: How employers are gearing up to spy on workers

Data is the new frontline of workers’ rights. We need to get serious about these risks now and take a stand, writes Prospect's Andrew Pakes.

Many of us will have upgraded our home working set-up during these last few months, adding a better chair, or carefully curating our bookshelves for online calls. Workplaces have been ‘upgrading’ too.

Thousands of employers have been updating software that is cloud-based, with changes that claim to make our ability to juggle work remotely a little more streamlined. But some of this software can also be used to make it easier for our employers to spy on us.

Take features like Office365’s Productivity Score, which potentially allows employers to track employees’ activity at an individual level. Other companies offer similar tools, adding together hundreds of thousands of micro actions builds up a profile on every worker and how they are working.

This includes things like how many emails have been sent, how many meetings they schedule, whether they are engaging with each other in messaging, or how long it takes them to reply.

Employers can view this in aggregate to see the trends in their IT usage, and how they compare against other firms. But they can also enable an option to view every worker’s own individual data. This allows employers to secretly gather data on how you are working, which they can use to judge your performance.

You may have heard of GDPR – the General Data Protection Regulations – from when you are asked to give permissions to receive marketing emails. However, GDPR has many other implications. We all have rights as ‘data subjects’ to know when any data is being collected on us where we are identifiable, and where there is a ‘high risk’ that we could suffer detriment employers have to conduct a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA).

We also have the right to be consulted as part of the process of minimising these risks. By definition, any data about your performance at work that could be used in decisions like promotion and pay decisions should meet this threshold of possible ‘high risk’. That means that if your employer is using this feature in Office 365, and hasn’t consulted with the workers, they could be in breach of the regulations.

Features like Productivity Score are potentially the thin edge of an unsavoury wedge. Automated hiring systems and monitoring software is becoming big business in the United States and during Covid, is has become a bigger issue in the UK too. A quick web search reveals the names of some of these products: Sneak; SpyCop; SpyAgent.

This goes to the heart of how data is changing work.  Privacy is the intersection of control and freedom, collective rights and individual protections. Surveillance software raises issues that start with privacy but quickly address employment rights. Who decides what productivity is?  This is crucial as algorithms replace policy.  What happens once the metrics are collected? Do they identify individual and personal data?  What decisions can employers make about us?

Data is the new frontline of workers’ rights. We need to get serious about these risks now and take a stand. The risks are that we are sleepwalking into a new age of surveillance where dispersed workers are monitored, measured and checked.

The always-on culture was already blurring the line between our work and private lives. Today, with many of us asking whether we are now working from home or living at the office, that concept of privacy is playing out from our laptops in our kitchens and spare rooms.

The Information Commissioners’ Office has voluntary guidance on employment practices.  It states: “Workers have legitimate expectations that they can keep their personal lives private and that they are also entitled to a degree of privacy in the work environment.” Yet technology is moving so fast and, with the widespread move into remote working, the concepts of privacy are changing and we need updated guidance clearly stating what rights workers’ have and how we should be involved.

At Prospect we have been warning about the risks of mass employee surveillance being introduced in under the cover of the switch to remote working. Over the summer we conducted polling to see how workers viewed the prospect of being monitored remotely. Our polling asked workers if they had heard of some of the most common monitoring technologies.

Only one third had heard of keystroke monitoring, where employers can check how often you are typing, and the same number had heard of software that allows employers to use cameras on work computers to monitor how much time you spend ‘at your desk’. Only a quarter had heard of new electronic tracking that check when you are logged on to your email, or even where you are. When they do hear about this, opposition is predictably strong. Two thirds would be uncomfortable with keystroke monitoring, and this rises to three quarters for tracking software and up to eighty per cent for cameras.

As it stands, workers are not remotely aware that the technology exists – let alone what their rights are.

There is a real risk that thousands of workers will have their rights systematically violated. Our argument is simple. Workers need to know when they are being monitored, they need to be consulted on the introduction of this technology, and this has to be transparency so that decisions made by algorithms or on the back of this data can be challenged. More transparency will be good for employers as well, helping morale among workers and preventing bad decisions based on dodgy data.

That is why we have launched a petition calling on Microsoft to disable the Productivity Score feature by default, or at the very least limit it to aggregate anonymised data. Workers need to be involved in these decisions.

Andrew Pakes is Research Director at Prospect.

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