Big Brother boss: The psychological weight of workplace monitoring

Your line manager can read your email, install a box under your desk to watch your productivity and more. How does that make you feel?

18 Jan 2016

Page 1 of 2 Big Brother boss: The psychological weight of workplace monitoring

Imagine showing up at work tomorrow to find a black box under your desk monitoring your every move. Big Brother is now your boss. But this isn’t some dystopian future – it’s now. That very scenario happened to bewildered Telegraph journalists this week, who quickly uncovered the purpose of the mysterious boxes and complained enough that management backed down.

Such a move won’t enamour workers to their bosses, but it could have further psychological effects beyond adding to your list of reasons to dislike upper management. Indeed, academics agree that while electronic monitoring might seem the right step to boost productivity, the demotivation it causes could undo any benefits.

But just what sort of tech is available for your employer to buy, and how much surveillance can they legally use? Here we answer those questions and look at what it all means for the inside of your skull.

Big Brother boss: Snooping tech for the office

The black box Telegraph journalists discovered under their desks was OccupEye – a heat- and motion-sensing device designed to log how often an employee sits at their desk. Generally it’s used to see how well space is used in an office – as in, how many more people can be crammed in.

Of course, it’s not only Telegraph workers being monitored. Companies have long kept an eye on employees via laptop logins and keystrokes, GPS to track trucks or delivery cars, call recording, or just the traditional security camera in the break room. But thanks to advancements in sensors, algorithms and other tech, much more can now be monitored.

Australian miners, drivers and more are wearing brain-scanning SmartCaps to watch for fatigue and boost safety, while an app from Plasticity Labs surveys workers throughout the day to track their happiness and try to boost their wellbeing. NCR’s software watches for a high-number of voided sales in shops and restaurants, a sign of possible theft, and BP in the US gave Fitbit trackers to staff as part of a health campaign. Even telematics in trucks are used to keep watch on driver behaviour, letting bosses send a message nagging them to buckle up; while insurer AIG is investing in Human Condition Safety, which makes safety vests that aim to prevent injuries with sensors.

That may all seem more like Concerned Mum than Big Brother, but there are others: companies can even use GPS on work smartphones to see where out-of-office staff have wandered off to. While an extreme use of the technology, this Wall Street Journal article about a pest-control business owner who used GPS to track and fire drivers who slacked off on the job will give pause to any office-hours cheaters.

Big Brother boss: What can your employer do?

Not surprisingly, emails sent between employees on the company server are fair game, but your boss can do much more than that. According to the Citizens Advice Bureau, employers “have the right to monitor your activities in many situations at work”, listing the ability to open mail or email; record phone calls; see what websites you visit; and record you on camera.

“Big Brother bosses don’t get the best out of employees. Staff who are being snooped on are less productive and less healthy.”

The European Court of Human Rights this week ruled that a company can read private messages sent during work time. The case surrounds a Romanian engineer who argued that his employer breached his right to privacy by accessing his Yahoo Messenger. The court disagreed, believing the company’s claim that since the account was initially set up to speak to professional contacts, the company should be able to access it the same as work email, even though the worker was also using it for private conversations.

That doesn’t mean your boss can access your personal Gmail account simply because you check it from work now and then, but if your company has a policy against personal communication during work hours, you could still lose your job over it, as unreasonable as that clearly is.

Indeed, Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady warned companies not to see the ruling as a green light to snoop on workers’ emails. “Big Brother bosses don’t get the best out of employees,” she told the BBC. “Staff who are being snooped on are less productive and less healthy.” And academics agree.

Page 1 of 2 Big Brother boss: The psychological weight of workplace monitoring

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