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Human Resources

Is workplace surveillance crossing ethical boundaries in the ‘new normal’ of remote work?

Health Industry Hub | October 17, 2023 |

Human Resources: The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the landscape of work, ushering in a “new normal” characterised by enhanced flexibility and heightened productivity. However, this transformation has blurred the lines between work and personal life, posing challenges in managing this evolved work environment due to persisting 20th-century mindsets.

At the heart of this transformation is the pervasive phenomenon of “productivity paranoia,” a term coined to describe the apprehensions of managers who fear that remote and hybrid workers may not perform optimally without direct supervision. As a response to these concerns, organisations are increasingly resorting to electronic monitoring and surveillance mechanisms within the workplace. While these technologies can yield valuable data and insights for organisations to enhance efficiency and performance, they concurrently give rise to pressing legal and ethical dilemmas.

A global survey conducted by Microsoft involving 20,000 individuals across 11 countries revealed a staggering 85% of managers admitted grappling with trust issues concerning their remote-working employees. The situation is even more acute in Australia, where an alarming 90% of managers face a similar struggle.

Further substantiating this trend, research by Gartner highlighted a doubling of large organisations engaging in the tracking, monitoring, and surveillance of their workforce since the onset of the pandemic, reaching 60%. The capabilities of these “bossware” tools include capturing screenshots, recording keystrokes and mouse movements, and even activating webcams and microphones.

While these tools undoubtedly offer the potential to provide organisations with valuable production statistics and evidence-based analytics, they inadvertently encroach upon personal privacy by capturing glimpses of an employee’s personal life when they are working remotely.

The challenge lies in striking a balance between the legitimate need for electronic monitoring and surveillance to protect organisational data and the imperative to uphold individual privacy and ethical considerations. The existing legal framework governing workplace privacy and surveillance in Australia is intricate and multifaceted, varying across states and territories.

In New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, specific legislation stipulates that employers must give at least 14 days’ notice before implementing surveillance and provide detailed information about the nature and scope of the surveillance. Covert surveillance is limited to cases involving suspected unlawful activities, with strict guidelines in place to ensure it does not unduly intrude upon an employee’s privacy.

In contrast, other states and territories rely on broader surveillance legislation, mandating employee consent, either explicit or implicit through workplace surveillance policies. However, Queensland and Tasmania have more limited legislation, primarily focused on regulating listening devices.

A 2022 report from a NSW parliamentary committee on the future of work highlighted outdated laws regarding workplace electronic monitoring. It criticised the lack of negotiation or challenge mechanisms for workers. In the ACT, employers must consult with workers on surveillance plans. Workers suspecting surveillance should review workplace policies and use their work computers cautiously. Disputes can be mediated by the Fair Work Commission for those under an enterprise agreement. Unfair dismissal claims may arise from intrusive surveillance. Workers unaware of surveillance can file complaints with relevant authorities for investigation and potential prosecution.

To navigate this ever-evolving work landscape successfully, it is imperative to bridge the gap between existing legal protections and the capabilities and potential harms of electronic monitoring and surveillance. As we continue to adapt to the “new normal,” addressing this legal and ethical challenge remains an imperative for organisations and policymakers alike.

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