What Are Workers’ Rights in the Face of Employee Monitoring?

As the use of technology in our everyday lives continues to increase, it’s no surprise that any legislation surrounding that technology is constantly lagging behind. After all, it’s usually impossible to know the potential dangers of technology until damage has been done.

Fortunately, legislation usually has a chance to catch up sooner or later. And that’s just what’s happening right now in regards to workers’ rights and over-monitoring by employers.
What Are Workers' Rights in the Face of Employee Monitoring

The Rise of Employee Monitoring Practices

The COVID-19 pandemic changed many aspects of our lives — from the way we get groceries and interact with friends and family members, to how we care for our children and do our jobs. Most notably, unless your job wouldn’t permit it or you already worked independently or remotely before the pandemic, work-from-home was an inevitable shift that most people experienced. Instead of waking up at 7am to shower, eat breakfast, and begin a commute to the office, millions of Americans woke up at 8am and made the long trek from their bedrooms to their home offices.

For many, the shift was a welcome change. An increasing number of people were able to see the joys of staying home and being more efficient on their own. Would-be hour-long meetings turned into short emails that were just as effective. And the saved time from these meetings, the commute, and chit-chatting at the water cooler turned into quality time with family members, plus more time for self-care, hobbies, and dare we say it — fun.

Unfortunately, this was the perspective of most employees. Employers did not share the same sentiments. On the contrary, many employers saw the influx of remote work as a problem. How could one keep proper tabs on their workers when they were at home and beyond their immediate control?

While some employers were able to navigate the work-from-home change quite swimmingly (“As long as everyone gets their work done, we’re good!”), others decided to invest in powerful new technologies that would leverage all of the micromanaging power possible in order to monitor their workers. This meant that even when workers were out of their immediate reach, employers could see what they were doing and when.

How close is too close?

It should go without saying that employee monitoring, on the whole, is neither new nor inherently sinister. After all, what is a boss’s role in the physical workplace if not to make sure their workers are on-task and not spending all their time browsing the web or sleeping at their desks?

Moreover, monitoring software is not entirely new. Even before the pandemic, many in-office employers utilized monitoring software to ensure their workers were ticking off their lists of duties at an acceptable rate. Web browsing histories were monitored as well, as were interoffice emails, software logins, and more.

So, what’s the difference now?

Are employees pushing back?

The key difference with work-at-home employee monitoring is that micromanagement is being carried out in people’s homes. Their personal lives are being affected, and employees are not happy.

One of the reasons workers are disgruntled is that their privacy is often breached. Some employees are forced to work in front of webcams, for example, which can lead to micromanaging at its worst (having to announce when you’re going to the restroom, for example) as well as privacy breaches for other family members or situations that are not work-related.

Warehouse workers and truck drivers, for example, are often required to have GPS locators or other tracking devices on them at all times. New technologies from companies like Microsoft and Fujitsu are even being developed to monitor emotions and how well employees are concentrating on their work — mostly based on facial expressions and body posturing via video streams.

Will a call for new regulations give more rights to workers?

Amidst the changes that COVID-19 has brought about, there are growing calls for better laws in regard to employee monitoring. Again, this type of legislation often lags behind, but it’s catching up now.

Companies that have obviously breached their workers’ rights are being sued and frequently have to pay out millions in compensation as a result. Both the United States and the UK have seen a strong demand for new regulatory stances on employee rights. Although these changes are still largely in their preliminary phase, it’s safe to say that we’ll be seeing the rollout of new laws and regulations concerning this matter in the near future.