One in five bosses are spying on us while we WFH

Are you being monitored right now? Is this even legal? We investigate.

by Roisin Lanigan
25 January 2021, 8:15am

Image from Spy Kids (2001)

When the pandemic made working from home standard practise for many young employees, most of us assumed it would be a short-term solution to a crisis we all hoped would be over by now. But with COVID-19 showing few signs of slowing down, WFH has become less of a novelty and more of a way of life for millions of people around the world. Some aspects of the ‘new normal’ work day have been great. For example, not having to change out of your jammies to take a meeting, and avoiding sweaty, stressful daily commutes. Others, however, have not been so great: our terrible posture as we work hunched over IKEA desks, or from our beds and sofas, and the greater erosion of the work-life balance as our jobs, and our bosses, are closer to us than ever.

In a dystopian but not fully unexpected development, those same bosses -- unable to check up on us in real life offices anymore -- are spying on us all online instead. (Well, some of them are, at least.) New research has revealed concerns over the upsurge in spy software, currently used by one in five firms to spy on their employees and track their activity throughout the work day. In a poll conducted by YouGov and Skillcast of 2,009 companies in the UK, 12% of them admitted to “remote monitoring” (this number went up to 16% at larger firms), while a further 8% said that they were considering implementing the same spying policies at their firms.

For many of us, WFH surveillance is an extension of existing workplace practices that exist on a fundamental level of distrust. Matt*, who works in customer service for a British fast fashion company, says that the timing of employee activities already existed at his job and has simply been ramped up during the pandemic. “We have a logger system that times everything you do,” he says. “And it reports to the manager if you’re not on a certain task allocated for a certain time. There’s even an option for going to the toilet called ‘Personal time’. It’s so weird and feels like an invasion of privacy.”

Because the practice is relatively new, and many employees, like Matt, are uncertain about the legality of the practices, nobody at the company has complained about the “micro-management to the extreme” practice. “They say that they need it so the planning team know what staff need to be doing, but I dunno,” he adds. “When I raised that it was strange, management just told me to like it or lump it, basically, and reminded me that I don’t have to work there if I don’t like it.”

It’s worth noting too, that the full picture of workplace surveillance is likely much worse than this grim research indicates. The one in five number only reflects companies who admitted to YouGov that they were carrying out remote surveillance, and the methodology of the study only reflects a fraction of the 3.1 million businesses currently registered within the UK. It’s important to consider also, that explicitly employing spyware software is not the only way bosses and companies are exerting surveillance on their employees during the pandemic, or pressuring them to work in ways that are unsafe.

“My boss at my last job said I wasn’t allowed to work from home at the height of the first lockdown because I wasn’t hitting my stats high enough”, says Emma* who works in PR. “They only relented at the end of March. Before that they were saying that if we felt uncomfortable in the office we would have to WFH on statutory sick pay [Sick pay in the UK is limited to £95.85 a week for a maximum of 28 weeks]. The targets they were setting us were higher than they’d ever been. There were more check-ins than you could count. At one point, I got an official warning for not answering a text from my boss.”

Trade unionists and politicians are concerned about what this means for worker rights. Research from the TUC reports that one in seven employees have seen surveillance increase during the pandemic, even though official government advice says that companies can only monitor their staff without their knowledge or consent if they suspect employees are carrying out illegal activities. “Staff must be properly consulted on the use of surveillance at work and protected from unfair management by algorithm,” TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady told Metro earlier this week. “As we emerge from this crisis, technology must be used to make working lives better -- not to rob people of their dignity.”

As businesses focus on productivity and profit however, it seems optimistic to assume they will redirect their technology to making their employees feel safer, rather than spied on. But on an individual level, young people are at least helping each other fight back (while still managing to pay the rent). “I found an app called Caffeine which keeps your screen on,” says Nathan*, who works in marketing. “It basically makes it look like you are always green and active on Slack.” Apps like this are being circulated on TikTok too, where Gen Z and millennial employees also share videos about how to trick your computer into thinking you’re working when you’re taking a break.

Realistically though, we shouldn’t need apps and hacks to trick our employers into thinking we are at peak productivity for the entire day. Much has been written, even pre-pandemic, about how the eight hour work day is an outdated concept that leads to inevitable burnout, and with mental health at an all time low for young people during the pandemic, it makes sense that productivity and our attitudes to work will have changed. In the short term, we might not be able to legally challenge the companies who are spying on overworked, underpaid employees, but we can at least enjoy long tea breaks without feeling bad about them; the smallest of victories.

*Names have been changed.