Productivity boon or intrusion? UK workers wary of monitoring tech - poll

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - From tracking keystrokes to video monitoring, most British workers are uneasy about new technologies being deployed to monitor employees’ productivity when working from home, a poll showed on Friday.

The global surge in remote working during the COVID-19 pandemic has increased demand for software that lets bosses keep tabs on their workers, raising concerns among privacy groups, trade unions and employees.

Two thirds of workers in Britain would be uncomfortable with programmes allowing employers to check how often they typed on their keyboard, according to an online survey among 1,800 people commissioned by trade union Prospect.

An even higher 80% of respondents said they did not like the idea of cameras recording them when they sat in front of their home computer, while 76% said they would feel uncomfortable if asked to wear devices that monitored their location.

The survey conducted in September by pollster YouGov, also found 75% of workers were wary about algorithms being used to evaluate candidates for recruiting and promotions.

While monitoring tools are not yet widespread in Britain - less than one in three of the surveyed workers had heard about them, Prospect said their use was likely to become more common as firms switch to remote working on a permanent basis.

“We’ve had a few reports from members about employers saying they’re going to introduce new software,” Prospect research director Andrew Pakes told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“This appears to be a deeply worrying trend that is going to extend surveillance and intrusion into people’s homes and into their private lives,” he said by phone.

A common fear among employers is that without oversight their staff will slack off and productivity will fall, according to a separate study by academics at Cardiff University and the University of Southampton published in September.

Yet, while almost one in two respondents in the Prospect survey said that monitoring software would have a positive impact on their productivity, about the same number said it would have a negative effect on their relationship with bosses.

British companies must tell their staff if they are being monitored, but Pakes said guidelines issued by the country’s Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) needed updating to give workers more say, as required by European data protection laws.

“Technology is transforming how we are managed, but we need to make sure this is done on the basis of trust,” Pakes said.

A spokeswoman for the ICO said people expect a degree of privacy at work “whether it is in a formal work environment or working from home remotely.”

“If organisations wish to monitor their employees, they should be clear about its purpose and that it brings real benefits. Organisations also need to make employees aware of the nature, extent and reasons for any monitoring.”

The country’s biggest business lobby group, the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), said its research showed most firms were investing in “responsible technology processes”, such as testing algorithms for bias.

“Business should take active steps to earn the trust of staff in the adoption of new technologies,” the CBI’s innovation and digital director, Felicity Burch, said.

“Employee engagement must be at the heart of this process, including consulting with staff and ensuring robust privacy safeguards.”

Reporting by Umberto Bacchi @UmbertoBacchi; Editing by Helen Popper. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit