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We are living in a time of increased employee surveillance. The past few years have seen a significant rise in the number of remote workers. As a result, employers have been utilising technology to monitor staff who are no longer contained and observable within an office structure.

Surveillance boom

Companies are now installing software that can collect data on staff in a myriad of ways. For instance, remote employees may be supplied with with a work computer that sends screenshots of their desktop to their boss every 10 minutes.

As reported in this The Economist article titled Welcome to the era of the hyper-surveilled office with the amusing sub heading The Big Brotherly boss will see you now—and always, “global demand for employee-spying software more than doubled between April 2019 and April 2020”.

Evidently many employers support using surveillance software to establish the productivity of those working remotely. Employee surveillance software is projected to grow from an annual sales rate of about $488m to $1.7bn by 2029.

What may (or may not!) surprise you, is that “Australian employers rank first in the world in using technology to monitor their employees” as reported in this AFR piece. The result of the significantly high surveillance take-up in corporate Australia may be an increase in disgruntled employees. In September 2021, Herbert Smith Freehills conducted a global survey which found that around 61 per cent of senior executives in large corporations in Australia believed there would be an increase in employee activism within the next three to five years. Employee surveillance was cited by these senior executives as what they believed would be the most likely trigger for employee activism (above pay and vaccine status).  

As reported here, two studies by Harvard Business Review found that monitoring employees makes them more likely to break rules. The studies authors found “that monitored employees were substantially more likely to break rules, including engaging in behaviors such as cheating on a test, stealing equipment, and purposely working at a slow pace.”

Surveillance regulation

What are the regulations around workplace surveillance? If you live in NSW, we have the Workplace Surveillance Act in place. An important entitlement to be aware of is that no employer is legally allowed to put you under covert/secret surveillance. Employees must be notified of allowable surveillance that is set to occur with at least 14 days’ notice. It’s a good idea to read the Workplace Surveillance Act if you’re looking to understand your rights as an employee or employer. It may also be worthwhile seeking legal counsel. 

Trusting your staff

The reality is that countless studies into employee satisfaction and engagement indicate that staff are more likely to thrive when given a certain degree of trust and autonomy by their employers. If you’re hoping to establish a happy workplace with productive workers, putting them under stringent surveillance is statistically not the answer. Better to set performance targets and inspire, encourage and support them to meet these goals. There are other effective and less intrusive metrics by which you can measure employee productivity.

Furthermore, as this insightful Guardian piece lays out. Employers should be focussed on monitoring staff for an alternative reason – to ward off cyber security threats which are rapidly increasing.