Working from home surveillance drives rise of digital presenteeism

Lockdown has meant the majority of UK office-based employees have taken up working from home arrangements over the last year, and it seems that many employers lack trust in their employees when they can’t physically see them. Last year saw a rise in the implementation of surveillance software, to ensure that workers are acting in best corporate interests. However, this is having a negative impact on some employees – who are feeling forced to work longer hours due to a new perceived need to remain visible to their manager or team leader, revealed in a survey by cybersecurity firm Kaspersky. With remote working set to stay post-COVID, these findings indicate a worrying growing trend around broken working from home employee trust.

Kaspersky surveyed 2,000 full-time workers in the UK, asking management personnel (38 percent) and employees (62 percent) about their new relationship amid the rise of long-term remote working. At first glance, the level of trust from both sides is encouragingly high – 80 percent of managers say they trust their employees to work from home, and more than half (54 percent) of employees claim they feel trusted. However, a ‘presenteeism paradox’ has formed as a result of heightened monitoring and a rise in installed software to keep track of workers’ productivity or activities. Many workers feel the need to remain visible outside of their contracted office hours to keep up perceptions of a strong work ethic, while nearly a fifth (19 percent) use personal devices for work activities to avoid being watched.

Not only are a considerable portion of employees working later, but a quarter (25 percent) admit to working harder from home, out of fear that their superiors will think they are lazy. This number jumps to 40 percent among those who have monitoring software installed on their devices. More than one-third (37 percent) of those with surveillance systems confirmed that their manager constantly checks up on them to ensure they are logged on and working, justifying these nervous habits and reactions. From a corporate finance point of view, this surveillance tactic is working and a lot of businesses will be getting more out of their employees for no, or little, additional expense. But the long-term cost of potentially losing employees to more trusting businesses should not be ignored.

Considering that 62 percent of employees have worked from home at least partially during the pandemic, and that almost half (44 percent) of those who have worked from home during that period have had monitoring software installed, the link between our current working environments, employer surveillance, and this resultant unease, is evident. In fact, more than half (53 percent) of those with software installed believe employee monitoring has increased since the start of COVID.

The proliferation of monitoring has even led some to mask their true behaviours, with many hiding their at-home activities and turning to personal devices to recreate in-office habits. Being able to reconnect with colleagues from home without letting sensitive or non-work discussions be seen by employers has led to the below confessions from respondents, including:

  • “I’ve sent certain messages over WhatsApp rather than forwarding emails, to not leave an audit trail.”
  • “To avoid being watched while chatting with co-workers, especially when talking about senior management, we text on our personal phones.”
  • “We all use WhatsApp for part of our role, but when talking at times about work, we now use code names/words.”

For many, it’s not just about having sensitive or personal discussions monitored, but a much more whole-hearted aversion to being monitored at all. Subsequently, 44 percent of those who have had monitoring software installed on their work device use their own personal devices instead to avoid surveillance for work purposes.

“Businesses need to realise that excessive employee surveillance is leading to unhealthy employee behaviours, with people feeling the need to work longer hours, and experiencing increased stress levels in their bid to keep up appearances. It also creates issues from a security perspective, as employees using non-sanctioned personal devices for work tasks increases the vulnerability of corporate data and assets to hackers,” comments David Emm, principal security researcher at Kaspersky.

Main image: Inside the panopticon at Presidio Modelo, Isla de la Juventud, Cuba.  By I, Friman, published under a creative commons licence