Spyware or legitimately useful business tool? The use of monitoring technology is on the rise as businesses respond to rapidly changing work trends and expectations. Here, Nick Owens, PR Manager at Harper James Solicitors, explores the balance that businesses need to maintain to stay on the right side of the law.

It is a dilemma which will be occupying the thoughts of many business leaders. 

How, with the continued surge in work-from-home, can managers ensure employees are both productive and happy in their work?

The issue has come into even sharper focus this week with the announcement that the government wants to make it easier for staff to work from home.

Under proposed changes to the law, ministers will look to roll out legislation which allows employees to insist on work-from-home rules on day one of their employment.

All the statistics indicate the trend for home-working is only set to carry on post-COVID. 

In April last year, Google queries for 'remote monitoring' were up 212% year-on-year. Yet by April this year, they had continued to surge by another 243%. 

Aligned with this rise is an increase in the number of new products which allows employers to monitor their staff’s performance remotely.

One of the major players in the industry, ActivTrak, reports that during March 2020 alone, the firm scaled up from 50 client companies to 800. Over the course of the pandemic, the company has maintained that growth, today boasting 9,000 customers or more than 250,000 individual users. 

Time Doctor, Teramind, and Hubstaff – which, together with ActivTrak, make up the bulk of the market - have all seen similar growth from prospective customers. 

In some quarters these devices are labelled as “spyware”. 

But, according to Simon Gilmour, an Employment Partner at Harper James Solicitors, businesses and employers who approach the technology in a transparent and open way can make it work effectively and stay within the law. 

“Working from home is here to stay," Simon predicts. "Post-lockdown increasing numbers of businesses are now incorporating more flexible work from home models into their business structures, often doing so indefinitely. 

"Naturally, in many cases employers will want to ensure they are able to track and monitor employee performance, which is why a competitive market has emerged for this kind of technology. This is often described as 'spyware' but that’s only the case if employers fail to properly engage their staff and make it clear it is being used. 

“The key is for businesses to be open, honest and upfront with their employees about any such methods they will be using to track performance. 

“It’s only those who don’t who could open themselves up to significant employee relations issues and complaints from staff, which can lead to long and often costly employment disputes. 

“From a more positive angle, effective use of this technology allows businesses to better communicate and interact with staff who aren’t in the office. It can offer a window into any problems a member of staff might have and allow managers to react quickly and effectively to put measures in place to help. 

"Getting legal advice before you set up a method of tracking staff performance is also strongly advisable to ensure you are complying with legal requirements and best practice.”

Tips for effective work-from-home management 

1. Consider an employee's job and skills

Ask yourself is the job suited to home working and if not what could be done to help make it more so? 

2. Be aware of legal requirements

Work-from-home might require an amendment to their written statement of their terms and conditions of employment. See employment contracts and working from or at home. You will probably need to extend your business insurance to cover equipment used by employees in their homes. See providing equipment for employees who work at home.

3. Provide appropriate equipment

As an employer, you're likely to be responsible for providing, installing and maintaining all equipment unless the employee uses their own. Make sure it's up to scratch. 

4. Encourage communication

Put formal systems in place to ensure people feel part of the team. 

5. Train and monitor employees

Training can help employees working from home to develop the skills they need. 

6. Be aware of health and safety responsibilities

You have the same responsibilities for ensuring the health and safety of home workers as you would for staff based at your premises. 

7. Consider information security

You should ensure that employees adhere to data protection principles.

Key takeaways...

  • With home working becoming more commonplace, employers are increasingly turning to monitoring technology to keep an eye on staff performance
  • Monitoring technology can have a negative perception, but if you're honest and upfront with your staff about its use and seek legal advice before deploying it, you should avoid any legal disputes
  • Consider and communicate the benefits of monitoring staff - including being able to spot trends or potential problems 
  • For more advice on running your business, visit the UMi platform: 
Contributed by Nick Owens
Neina Sheldon
Article by Neina Sheldon
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