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Employee remotely working in front of a computer

 

Are your employees quiet-quitting? Do you suspect your staff of time-theft?

 

If you’re scratching your head about what these terms mean, you’re not alone.

 

The pandemic pushed us all into a new era of work habits and work-related terms, some of which are dubious and, probably, totally unnecessary.

 

As employees moved to working remotely for what seemed like the rest of their lives, companies seemingly became less trusting of their employees’ productivity.

 

These new terms likely wouldn’t exist if employers didn’t have monitoring software tracking every moment of an employees’ time on the job.

 

Employee monitoring as the new norm

 

Companies use various methods to track how much work staff is getting done during a day. At a basic level, they monitor employee activity on company chat programs by watching their status. At the next level, businesses can use programs to access employees’ browser histories. Such a move potentially gives employers and managers access to sensitive information, especially if work-related and personal browsing is done on the same laptop.

 

Then there are more invasive systems, such as those that track heat strokes on the keypad or trackpad. Other ways involve using an employee’s laptop mic or camera to monitor what they’re doing — sometimes without their knowledge.

 

In some cases, monitoring systems use cameras to track employees’ mental and emotional states based on their facial expressions. The camera detects attentiveness based on eye movement, which, experts say, is an inaccurate measure.

 

Critics seem to think all this is too much fodder for abuse in the hands of management.

 

Monitoring systems are here to stay — so what do employers have to do?

 

There’s nothing stopping businesses from using software to watch employees. Apart from one province — Ontario — companies are not even required to let workers know they’re doing it.

 

So, what are the rules in Canada around employee monitoring?

 

Officially called “electronic monitoring,” employee watching has not yet been standardized in Ontario’s Employment Standards Act (ESA). However, guidance issued by the Ministry of Labour in 2022 describes electronic monitoring as all forms of employee watching done electronically. The Ministry refers to all aspects of surveilling employees, irrespective of whether it’s done on employer-issued equipment or while employees are physically at, or away from, the workplace.

 

It is important to remember, these new ESA requirements around electronic monitoring policies do not govern the use of information obtained through such systems.

 

In easier words, employees have not gained any new or increased privacy rights as a result of the latest rules.

 

How does the new electronic monitoring policy apply then?

 

When the rules are clear as mud, employers need to be careful when developing electronic monitoring policies. One reason for this is because a company could have different types of employees for which monitoring methods may differ.

 

According to the province, employers that have 25 or more employees (full-time or part-time) must implement an electronic monitoring policy for all workers in Ontario, including management level and probationary employees.

 

The Ministry’s guidelines clearly state that employers do not need such a policy for any employees outside of the province.

 

Currently, other provinces do not require employers to adopt an electronic monitoring policy. But, British Columbia, Alberta, and Québec, as well as federally regulated workplaces, have privacy laws that impact the adoption of a monitoring policy. In contrast, Europe forbids all excessive forms of monitoring.

 

So how do you go about creating a monitoring policy?

 

Some mandatory features required by the ESA are listed below.

 

  • An employer must provide a description of how it electronically monitors employees.
  • An organization must share the purposes for which information is being collected and will be used.
  • The official policy must be dated when it’s created, and all subsequent changes must be dated as well.
  • Companies must provide each employee with the electronic monitoring policy 30 days before planned implementation.
  • Companies with existing policies must convey any changes to employees within 30 days from the date of revision.

 

What else is needed in an electronic monitoring policy?

 

When you’re creating a monitoring policy, it’s important to keep the following in mind.

 

Be clear about what you intend to monitor. Create a comprehensive list of all work aspects, equipment, and other ways you’re going to monitor. For instance, access to the Internet, laptops, phones, virtual private networks, computer file access, emails, communications via chat apps, records management software, surveillance cameras, security cards, printers, scanners, etc.

 

The company must also extensively explain the circumstances in which monitoring will occur. For example, will you be monitoring employees at all times? Or will you do it only during regular business hours? Or will you limit it to only during the employee’s specific scheduled work hours?

 

You must also clearly define the purposes for which you want to electronically monitor staff. Companies could have a variety of reasons, for instance, using the information for business-related operations, business administration, compliance tracking, safety, security, workplace investigations, productivity, and/or performance management.

 

Make sure you define scenarios in which information gathered for one purpose may be used for a different reason.

 

Take a bird’s eye view of how this new policy will interact with other company rules, such as those around information technology. Ensure that all company policies work together and are based on consistent company standards.

 

Exceptions to the rule

 

Rules vary dramatically when monitoring unionized employees vs. a non-unionized workplace. In the first case, monitoring rules must be negotiated with the union. In the latter case, employers should exercise reason when developing the policy, limiting the extent of privacy invasion to a fair level or develop it following guidelines shared above.

 

Should employees just accept being monitored?

 

First, employers must remember that if the employee doesn’t understand the tracking system, it’s almost like entrapment.

 

Critics say we’re moving a bit too fast in holding our employees accountable even if they don’t understand how a company’s tracking system works. Daily work tasks are never limited to our job descriptions. In real life, practices can vary widely, depending on the type of work environment. Monitoring systems fall short of recognizing some essential elements of our jobs as “work.” The AI-driven systems don’t capture tasks that are helpful to employers, like brainstorming sessions or mentoring co-workers.

 

Critics say the data gathered through employee monitoring software isn’t an accurate representation of employee performance. When companies use AI to track a limited set of employees’ work aspects, they short-change their hardworking staff.

 

There are no studies pointing to a meaningful impact on productivity. Research does not prove that the benefits of worker surveillance systems outweigh the costs.

In fact, experts that have studied this phenomenon say employee monitoring can often be counterproductive and detrimental to productivity.

 

Employees that worry about monitoring may reject soft skills-based activities to protect their productivity. When people know there are systems in place to watch them, they will spend more time trying to find loopholes than getting work done.

 

Some studies also indicate that watching workers produces problems — by creating worker stress, eroding trust in management, and encouraging employees to game the system.

 

Why else are companies monitoring their employees?

 

It almost seems as if companies are conducting a massive research experiment using employees as subjects. The issue, experts say, is that employers aren’t equipped to understand worker-surveillance data. Very few companies have a data science team capable of properly studying and drawing useful conclusions from the information collected.

 

Employees may increasingly feel they have no choice but to accept this new fate if the company offers them flexible work options instead.

 

So what should companies do?

 

Ask questions and have constructive conversations with employees.

 

Experts that study worker productivity say employers would benefit more by assessing output, rather than activities that AI marks as work.

 

When it comes to addressing quiet quitting, team leaders should first find the answer to the question: What is quiet quitting? Once they’ve identified it, they can investigate what causes it and solutions they can develop to prevent it.

 

Business leaders should collaborate with their team to create an environment that enables workers to give their best. At the same time, companies should actively identify workers who are eager to take on more leadership tasks.

Rather than spying on employees, companies can take the following steps to improve employee productivity.

 

  • Ask staff about professional and personal goals.
  • Share corporate aims with staff, highlighting those that are most relevant to their roles in the company.
  • Evolve a work ethic that lets employees take ownership of the company’s ambitions.
  • Find middle ground with workers when identifying key performance indicators linked to goals that directly affect their roles.
  • Actively and openly reward employees who meet the goals. Coach and counsel those who may temporarily fall short.

 

Since some form of remote work is here to stay, companies must shift their perspectives on productivity. They should work with staff to allow for a healthy work-life balance, while still successfully achieving the company's goals.

 

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