What are the rules on monitoring remote staff?

James Potts - Legal Services Director

April 16 2021

86% of UK bosses think working from home is here to stay. If that’s the case for your business, you’ll have questions about managing remote staff.

For example, how can you record overtime if you can’t see your staff clock out? And how can you tell if a lunch break is taking a little too long?

We’re here to discuss the legal lowdown on tracking remote staff ― and how to get the balance right in your business.

What are employee surveillance techniques?

Even before COVID-19 hit, employers used various methods to monitor staff from a distance. Here are some of the most common ways to monitor remote employees:

  • Recording calls
  • Logging keystrokes
  • Tracking internet use
  • Monitoring screenshots
  • Checking email content

But since remote work took off last March, some employers have taken extra steps to track their staff online. With software like ‘Sneek’ taking webcam pictures every five minutes, many are concerned that employee surveillance could be too invasive ― or even illegal.

So, is checking on your remote staff illegal?

It’s not illegal to monitor your staff while they work from home.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t legal concerns you need to address. With GDPR rules, you need to tell your staff how you plan to use and store any personal data.

And since your staff have the right to privacy, they could raise a grievance if they feel your methods are too invasive ― or if there’s no valid reason behind them. This could lead to a dispute or seriously damage your relationship with your staff. 

Think about how you usually track your employees’ work. If you wouldn’t check screens every five minutes in the office, it would be hard to justify doing this while they work remotely.

Lastly, you need to treat all your staff equally. If you only track certain staff members ― and they belong to a protected characteristic ― you could face a discrimination claim.

Do I have to tell staff if I track their activity?

Legally speaking, no. You’re not obliged to tell staff if you’re tracking their work.

That said, not telling your employees about online surveillance is risky. Staff could raise a grievance if they discover you’re tracking them without their knowledge ― or if you didn’t make it clear why you’ve chosen to do this.  

If this happens, staff could claim for constructive unfair dismissal. And not only that, but secret surveillance could lead to reduced trust and negative morale.

You should only consider covert surveillance in extreme situations when there’s a clear need for secrecy ― like if you suspect any conduct breaches or criminal activity.

So, to avoid a tribunal and keep your people happy, it’s best to inform staff about any monitoring methods in advance.

Make a policy and share it with your staff

When it comes to monitoring remote staff, it’s all about being open. If you explain your reasoning for checking screens and online activity from the start, there’s less space for staff to push back.

Creating a dedicated policy and sharing it with your staff means there’s no unwelcome surprises or confusion. Remember to include the reasons behind your approach and how you plan to store any personal data.

Ask yourself whether it’s worth the risk

Not sure whether surveillance is worth it? Weigh up the benefits of monitoring your staff with the potential negatives…

First, using invasive tracking methods could harm your staff’s wellbeing or create a poor morale. And this could slow down workloads instead of boosting productivity.

Plus, trust is important in any workplace. So if you’re monitoring staff, this could hurt your mutual trust ― especially if you’re not open about the methods you’re using. If word gets out, you could damage your reputation as an employer. 

Add the risk of a dispute and online surveillance might not be worth it for your business.

Finding the balance in your business

If you’ve decided against online surveillance, it doesn’t mean you can’t keep tabs on productivity. Instead, you could focus on other things:

  • Look at the output ― are you happy with the quality of work staff are producing?
  • Track time-sheets ― can staff record their daily tasks? You could compare this against their output.
  • Set targets ― create daily or weekly goals for staff to work towards.

Or you might decide tracking staff is essential for your business. It could be that you’ve noticed a big drop in output, and you need to understand why. Or it might be that your business has strict security rules, and you need to make sure staff are still compliant at home.

Whatever the reason, if you do choose to monitor remote staff, remember to:

  • Be open and upfront about any monitoring measures.
  • Share your reasons behind your decision.
  • Create a policy to share with your staff.
  • Keep the information you collect to a minimum.
  • Avoid storing data for longer than you need it.
  • Stick to less invasive tactics.

Expert HR support for remote staff

Working from home could be here to stay. And if that’s the case for your business, it’s important to be clear on your policy from the start.

Our HR consultants are here to help. Whether we’re creating a work-from-home policy for your staff or giving you expert legal advice, we’ll take the confusion out of managing your remote employees.

Simply call 1800 917 0771 to get started today.

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