3rd February 2021

Protecting employee privacy when working remotely

In a bid to understand how employees spend their time when working from home, lots of businesses have adopted communication and surveillance tools. But questions have been raised over employees’ privacy, and employers should tread carefully.

In a bid to understand how employees spend their time when working from home, lots of businesses have adopted communication and surveillance tools. But questions have been raised over employees’ privacy, and employers should tread carefully.

 

With more people now working remotely, employers are looking for ways to be more flexible and accommodating. And one way to enable productivity at home is by using online collaboration tools.

Remote collaboration tools are bringing teams together and streamlining workflows. The likes of Microsoft Teams, Slack and Trello are replacing office conversations and keeping everyone in the loop and up to date with diaries. Lots of employees enjoy being able to use these tools for the social interaction they replicate, which is likely to continue as more people work from home. However, others are understandably concerned that their employer may be using the tools to ‘spy’ on them.

The downside of employee communication tools

Remote working tools can enable employers to track their employees, which raises a question over privacy. Various platforms provide data about when staff are productive, the websites and social sites they use, time spent online, the number of mouse clicks and keystrokes, and how quickly people respond to messages. Although this data can help businesses find ways to better support their employees while working remotely, it can also make people feel they are being watched too much.

Many employees do not realise that they are being monitored in this way, and lots do not have a say over whether the technology is being used. A lack of transparency like this can harm trust between employees and employers.

Are privacy regulations changing?

With one in five UK businesses now considering the use of surveillance technology, discussions around employee privacy have been brought into sharper focus. Labour has recently called on the government to update the Employment Practices Code (which is issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office) to better protect employees.

As of yet, the regulations around employee privacy have not changed, but as businesses continue to look into home or hybrid working as a permanent option, they could be amended in the near future.

Tips on managing employee privacy

Businesses are encouraged to be transparent around their privacy policies to ensure their team workflow and communication tools help, rather than hinder, employee relationships. Using the following guidance, employers can make sure they continue to comply with regulations and avoid disputes.

  • Review the Employment Practices Code for the essential dos and don’ts of monitoring your employees’ communications. If you need any clarification or advice on how to meet the obligations, contact a solicitor.
  • Put clear policies in place that include the tools you use, setting out in unambiguous terms how you and your employees can use them.
  • Explain the systems you will monitor, how you intend to do so, the purpose of the monitoring and how the information will be retrieved.
  • Make sure you protect employees’ personal data and detail how you do this.
  • Ensure your policies are clear about any disciplinary action that may result from findings collected through surveillance.
  • Let your employees know that you have these policies in place and encourage them to familiarise themselves with the points.
  • Remember that personal communications, even when shared via professional tools, are still private. You should have a viable justification to read them.
  • If you believe you may have to take disciplinary action based on findings, ensure you follow correct procedure. Be clear about why you are taking this action and the policies that have been breached, including specifics about the tools used to identify the breach and when it happened.
  • Think carefully before dismissing someone for policy breaches, as this can damage trust within your business and harm your reputation.
  • Try not to jump to conclusions. Instead, look at the bigger picture. An employee who takes an extra 20-minute break in the afternoon might be more productive because of the break.

By creating robust and clear policies, and consistently applying them, you can ensure complete transparency around the technology you use.

For more advice on how to create your policies, or to speak to a solicitor about managing a dispute, contact our Employment team.


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