Bosses beware: if you think your company will benefit from surveilling employees who work from home, think again.
That's the message from AUT Professor of Human Resource Management Jarrod Haar, who oversaw the first major survey of remote workers in the age of Covid.
Just over 1000 employees were surveyed in the first month of lockdown; around 250 were surveyed one month later.
As work from home (WFH) becomes the norm for many employees, efforts to monitor their activities are also becoming normalised, Haar says.
Reports suggest growing numbers of companies are using different approaches, including technology, to track how much time remote workers are spending on the job.
Haar's study shows that just after New Zealand's first Covid-19 lockdown, Kiwi employees felt their organisations were more likely to be surveilling them, with 52 per cent reporting they believed this was happening to some extent.
Nearly two-thirds of the employees (62 per cent) said the most common surveillance came in the form of their supervisor checking on them 'to control my task completion'; employees also believed they were being surveilled through online monitoring - but at a lower rate (46 per cent).
Online monitoring is certainly on the rise. The maker of one remote-monitoring tool, Hubstaff (which can also be used for time increment-based billing) says sales have tripled since the first lockdowns in April.
Like many such programmes, which run discretely in the background, every few minutes Hubstaff takes a snapshot of the websites you've browsed, the documents you have open and the social media sites you've visited. If its on your phone, too, it will use GPS coordinates to track whether you leave your home office.
Extra effort, but more likely to jump ship
The study found that those who felt 'spied on' were more likely to put in some extra effort at work - but they were also more likely to consider job hunting, and they suffered higher anxiety, depression, and stress.
Haar says that fundamentally, NZ managers appear to be struggling with the working from home (WFH) boom, seeking new ways to keep traditional tabs on their workforces.
'Checking on' vs 'Checkin in with'
He says this so-called clash of cultures – the pre-Covid "checking up on" employees versus the post-COVID "checking in with" them – can be problematic for individuals and organisations.
"The study shows attempts to monitor employees' WFH activities have more drawbacks than advantages, harkening back to the old days of companies trying to command and control. Simply put, if organisations want to get the best of out their people, they need to trust them."
Haar acknowledges the challenges of moving from a high visibility, office-based approach to a low visibility, remote approach to work.
But he says employees' perceptions about how much their organisation cares about their wellbeing and trusts them are vital to their own sense of happiness at work.
"There is clear evidence that employees expect their company to trust them and not apply any 'Big Brother' mentally to their work from home," says Professor Haar.
"Fundamentally, businesses that engage in such surveillance are eroding their workers' trust and mental health – at a time when both are needed more than ever."
What are employee's rights?
Do NZ employers have to inform staff if the software that monitors their work is in place?
"Employers are required to inform staff if they are collecting personal information in the form of work monitoring software," a spokesman for the Privacy Commissioner says.
Employers must be clear about what information is being collected, what it will be used for, and who it will be shared with.
"Employers should only collect information if it is necessary to fulfill a lawful purpose. Collecting masses of extraneous personal information to confirm that your staff are working prescribed hours or completing required tasks may be unnecessary and raise issues under the Privacy Act," the spokesman says.
"We recommend employers consider whether they could achieve the same policy intent with less intrusive mechanisms."
Can your laptop's webcam be used to monitor you?
Privacy Commissioner John Edwards has received several enquiries about whether an employer can require employee's to keep their laptop cameras on at all times.
His office replied that, under employment law, an employee is obliged to comply with any reasonable instruction.
Asking an employee to have a camera in their home at all times raises considerable privacy concerns and is unlikely to be considered reasonable as it places the employee under constant surveillance.
"Having a camera in a workplace for security and monitoring purposes and insisting on having one on in an employee's home are very different things. The employee would quite rightly have a heightened expectation of privacy in their home."
Principle 4 of the Privacy Act says the means of collection should not be unfair or unreasonably intrusive. Insisting that an employee who is working from home keep their laptop camera on is likely to be a breach of this principle.
"An employer can only collect personal information when doing so is necessary for a lawful purpose. An employer should not collect information just because they can.
"Instead they could look at other ways keeping in touch with employees working remotely and gauging their work progress," - echoing Haar's line that it's better to "check in with" than "check in on".
The AUT study was undertaken during New Zealand's nationwide lockdown, as the country moved from Alert Level 2 to Alert Level 1 (May-June). Participants comprised a representative sample of around 1300 New Zealand employees who were relatively evenly split across gender and spanned an age range of 19-70 years (with an average age of 39 years). Just over 1000 employees were surveyed in the first month of lockdown; around 250 were surveyed one month later.