This article was originally published on May 20, 2021.
With many companies extending their remote-work policies indefinitely, employers are increasingly exploring new ways to oversee their staff’s productivity. But this challenge is giving rise to solutions that may have disastrous consequences for individual privacy.
In a study commissioned by ExpressVPN, in collaboration with Pollfish, 2,000 employers and 2,000 employees who work in a remote or hybrid capacity were surveyed to reveal the extent of employer surveillance, how it’s impacting employees, and the rate at which it might increase in the future as remote working continues.
- Ethical questions: 83% of employers think there are ethical concerns with employee monitoring, yet 78% use monitoring software. (Go to this section)
- Employee knowledge: 1 in 3 employees don’t believe their employers are actively monitoring their online activities, and 15% didn’t even know that was possible. (Go to this section)
- Employee mental state: The majority (56%) of employees feel stress and anxiety about their employer surveilling their communications. In fact, 41% constantly wonder if they are being watched, and 32% take fewer breaks because of it. (Go to this section)
- Privacy over pay: Nearly half (48%) of employees would be willing to reduce their pay if it meant not being subjected to surveillance. In fact, 1 in 4 would take a 25% pay cut. (Go to this section)
- Evidence for firing: 41% of employees admit their recorded work calls have evidence that could get them fired. Meanwhile, 37% of employers say they have used stored recordings for firings. (Go to this section)
- Reflection on performance: Employers also use stored email, calls, messages, or videos to inform their decisions on performance reviews (73%) and to monitor the potential formation of workers’ unions (46%). (Go to this section)
Bosses are uneasy about remote workers’ productivity
The biggest driver behind employers’ growing interest in surveillance is their uncertainty and unease about the status of their company and whether employees are doing what needs to be done to maintain overall business performance.
3 in 4 bosses and/or executives are surveilling staff
Surveillance of employees has been rapidly increasing in recent months, likely due to the many companies that are implementing long-term work-from-home policies.
Report using employee monitoring software to track employee performance and/or online activity
Implemented employee monitoring software in the last 6 months
Actively track time spent by employees doing work vs. other activities unrelated to work
Say they’ve terminated an employee based on information collected related to their remote work
Say stored recordings of staff’s calls, emails, or messages have informed an employee’s performance reviews
Channels of communication that are regularly being recorded and stored
People who can access stored recordings
Employees may be unknowingly putting themselves at risk
There is a significant gap between what employers are actively monitoring and what employees think their employers are monitoring, indicating many are woefully unaware of its true extent, which could be putting them at risk.
Of employees are using one or more employer-provided device
Of employees know their employer is actively monitoring their communication and online activities
Employees weren’t aware it was possible for employers to monitor their communication and/or online activities
Employer surveillance activities
|Websites visited / time spent on various websites||66%|
|Apps used / time spent on apps||53%|
|Real-time screen monitoring||53%|
|Periodic screen capture||33%|
|Active work hours / log times||46%|
|Productive vs. unproductive hours logged||31%|
|Chats / messaging logs||30%|
|Monitoring / access to computer files||27%|
|Inbound and outbound emails||23%|
Surveillance activities suspected by employees
|Websites visited / time spent on various websites||34%|
|Apps used / time spent on apps||21%|
|Real-time screen monitoring||19%|
|Periodic screen capture||12%|
|Active work hours / log times||47%|
|Productive vs. unproductive hours logged||29%|
|Chats / messaging logs||33%|
|Monitoring / access to computer files||28%|
|Inbound and outbound emails||37%|
1 in 3 have used their work computer for purposes that they’d find embarrassing should their employer find out
|Chats / messages with personal friends and/or significant other||43%|
|Google searches around potentially embarrassing bodily functions and/or medical topics||42%|
|Chats / messages with co-workers||41%|
|Visiting job application websites||40%|
|Google searches around love life||37%|
|Visiting inappropriate sites||30%|
Employees say surveillance is a violation of trust and a source of additional stress
While many employers say these surveillance practices are a way to keep employees’ work quantity and quality up, many employees are experiencing negative psychological effects, including feeling more stressed, unappreciated, and resentful.
Report feeling stress and/or anxiety about their employer surveilling their online activity
Top reasons why employees feel stress and/or anxiety due to workplace surveillance:
|Constantly wondering whether they’re being watched||41%|
|Feel more pressure to be actively online than doing actual productive work||38%|
|Feel pressure to work longer hours in general||36%|
|Feel pressure to work more and/or an equal amount of time as my colleagues||36%|
|Take fewer breaks throughout the day||32%|
|Feel dehumanized as a result of workplace surveillance||20%|
Insight into employees’ feelings about surveillance in the workplace
“I’m an adult and I am a professional with advanced degrees. I get my work done and I do so timely. I am not a child, I do not need to be tracked or monitored to get my job done. I would not appreciate being treated like a child.”
“It’s micro-management. As long as my productivity is acceptable and my work is getting done, it shouldn’t matter how i pass the time while waiting for an active job to pick up.”
“I think knowing you’re being watched and monitored is bound to make any situation less enjoyable and more stressful. I work hard for my company and that wouldn’t seem fair.”
Ways employees are bypassing work-related tracking and/or monitoring tools
Employers considering implementing surveillance practices may be surprised by the pushback
For the many employers who are considering employee monitoring but have yet to implement them, it’s important to note that there is a high level of dissatisfaction from employees at the prospect of being monitored by their employer. Some would even change their job and/or income to avoid it.
Yet, the impact of implementation of such practices could be damaging to their business. Employees are willing to take drastic measures to avoid surveillance:
Surveillance tactics in the workplace pose concerns
Despite the frequency of employers surveilling their employees, many are still aware that it poses both ethical dilemmas and trust issues that could put employer/employee relations at risk. Yet for employers, there are split feelings as to whether those concerns outweigh the benefits.
Employers who are pro-surveillance in the workplace:
“I think it’s helpful to know that there are still expectations, whether you are in person or remote.”
“To ensure that work is running properly…also the feeling of monitoring drives employees to work better.”
“I think that sometimes employees try their best but they do need to be monitored to make sure that they don’t do things that are against their own best interest or the best interest of the company.”
Employers who are anti-surveillance in the workplace:
“I feel it would erode my employee’s feeling that I believe in them. That trust is critical in building a strong team.”
“If you cannot trust your employees to do what they’re supposed to do, they no longer need to be your employees.”
“I think it comes from a place of paranoia and need for control amongst employers and has a negative effect on staff morale. It’s too oppressive for my style of running a business.”
“Part of our culture is ownership mentality. If employees are delivering results, the time they spend doing it matters less.”
Overall, the results of the study indicate that surveillance in the workplace may do more harm than good, potentially leading to a rise in disgruntled employees who don’t feel their employers respect their work ethic and personal boundaries.
Some employees would go as far as leaving their positions for another job should their employer decide to implement such practices, demonstrating the extent to which surveillance practices could damage businesses. Meanwhile, the sense of personal privacy and well-being might also decline among workers.
Ultimately, the future of the growing long-term remote workforce is still unclear, but both employers and their employees need to be informed and use discretion when deciding how to move forward in a way that’s beneficial for both their business and their remote workforce.
Learn more: How a VPN protects your online privacy