• Sat. Dec 2nd, 2023

Technology Consultant

Oh My Gods, It's a Technology Consultant

‘My boss is spying on me’; The rise in companies recording employees’ every move and what that means for you

When Rachel*, 23, took a job at a tech recruitment company, at first she was not too concerned to learn the firm used bossware technologies to monitor employees’ performance. “I worked at a company called Montash,” Rachel says, “where they used a software called Cube19 to measure how many calls, what types of calls and how long they were.”

The technology measured Rachel’s performance against set targets, and their figures started out well, showing she was more than meeting targets. And although Rachel felt she was a conscientious worker, the software then began to tell another story. “We ran out of eligible candidates for the jobs, so my metrics on Cube19 showed I hadn’t kept up doing 25 separate 30-minute calls a day. I was fired two hours into the working day.”

Montash was contacted by i for a response to Rachel’s story, but did not respond to requests for comment.

Experiences such as Rachel’s are likely to become more common as companies increasingly adopt bossware, the newest form of labour surveillance that records workers’ every move. By monitoring phone calls, tracking workers’ keystrokes on a mouse, taking photos through a webcam, or picking up physical pauses, the software alerts bosses to failures to meet targets.

These often arbitrary technological targets make work increasingly stressful for workers, who are being monitored on their ability to meet them on a continuous basis. A report published by the Trade Union Congress earlier this year found that the overwhelming majority of workers in the UK believe they have been subject to surveillance or monitoring at their current or most recent job.

Close up of lens on black background
Although Rachel felt she was a conscientious worker, the software then began to tell another story. (Photo: Peter Dazeley /Getty)

In the US, it was reported last month that the US labour watchdog is currently cracking down on bossware technologies, saying the use of software that screenshots employees’ laptops, records their faces and voices, tracks their location, and monitors their texts and calls is in breach of workers’ rights under the National Labor Relations Act. The New York Times found that 8 of the 10 largest private US employers track the productivity metrics of individual workers.

But in the UK, progress on protecting workers from surveillance has been slow, while the implementation of these technologies has become more widespread.

Surveillance technology that had previously been confined to jobs in the gig economy and insecure work, such as delivery driving or warehouse stocking, is now becoming more common in other settings. During the pandemic, remote working became the norm for many of us, and with this physical barrier between worker and employer, bosses became increasingly paranoid about slacking behaviour.

In the EU, protective legislation such as the Proposed Directive on Platform Work and the draft AI Regulation are in the works, but in the UK there is currently no specific legislation that protects workers from the use of AI. The Government even recently consulted on watering down EU data protection regulations (GDPR) post-Brexit, which would remove some key protections.

The increasing desire to reach new levels of efficiency and growth has led to the slippery use of bossware technology, as a way of ensuring workers keep on track. This type of technological surveillance of workers is what companies call “performance management”.

Ayse, a call-centre worker in Turkey, who works for a company subcontracted by airlines, delivery services and banks, to take customer service calls, describes how it affects her working days. She works a zero-hours contract, where her salary is based on her hours of work.

“We check in and out when on breaks using a system called Spark. If we are one minute late the system alerts our manager, who immediately messages us to ask why we haven’t got back to work,” she says.

“Through Spark, our managers monitor how long we spend on a customer call. We have targets of 20 minutes to close each customer call. If we go over 20 minutes, our managers start sending us ‘whispers’, which are messages telling us to hurry up and cut the call.”

Measuring productivity levels tends to be the primary justification for the use of bossware technologies. “Productivity tracking is now integrated into popular remote work platforms, such as Microsoft Teams, that white-collar workers use every day,” says Gavin Mullins, author of Breaking Things at Work.

“Microsoft brands this as a way for considerate managers to monitor employee working time to prevent burnout, but it is easy to see it being used in the opposite way, to compel workers to work harder.”

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By tracking “idle time”, bosses can crack down on anything that isn’t active work, leading to institutionalised micromanagement. Under this framework, where busyness equates productivity, the value of our work becomes less about personal relationships and interpersonal skills and more about analytics and numerical metrics.

“Employers are delegating serious decisions to algorithms – such as recruitment, promotions and sometimes even sackings,” says Mary Towers, employment rights policy officer at the TUC. “But it’s not just people being hired and fired by the algorithm. The use of AI-powered tech to manage people at work can lead to workers feeling isolated – breaking down bonds between people.”

Shaun Omogbhai, a former DHL employee, recalls his experience of task time monitoring in the firm’s warehouses. “We would have to sign into and scan barcodes for everything you processed. You would be timed for every task you did so that managers could track your productivity. It was aggressive micromanaging in abundance.”

This type of surveillance doesn’t stop at the individual worker, but is often used to fuel competition with co-workers. “Your names would go up on a screen to show you who was doing well and who wasn’t. People who worked faster would get paid more.” says Omogbhai.

Commenting on Omogbhai’s story, a spokesperson from DHL Supply Chain says: “We have a rigorous process we have adopted to ensure compliance with GDPR which we adhere to diligently. This is driven through the DPDHL group and all divisions align to global governance and standards.”

The implementation of surveillance technology has not only been used to pressure workers into working faster, but has also been weaponised as a tool to weaken and prevent industrial action. Research by the VPN company ExpressVPN found that 46 per cent of employers use stored email, calls, messages, or videos to monitor the potential formation of unions. Google automatically alerts managers to any meetings of over 100 workers, and Amazon Whole Foods uses heat maps to track shops likely to take collective action.

After union organising on Staten Island, Amazon was forced to ditch its “Time off task” policy, which had been used for years to record workers’ every move, their speed of work and how long they paused.

For workers anxious about the potential implementation of monitoring tools, it’s pushing some to take industrial action.

Luke Elgar, a postal worker and CWU National Executive member, says: “Unfortunately alongside replacing workers, technology is increasingly being used to monitor workers against computer designed productivity targets and increasing stress in the workplace. Royal Mail’s technology-based targets have caused huge backlogs to mail as targets are proven unachievable.”

He adds: “Instead of learning from this, businesses see the answer as more technology to conduct those who cannot maintain the pace of a younger colleague. Royal Mail is now embarking on an approach which aims to set worker against worker by displaying performance and hopes to manage people out of business.”

It’s not surprising to learn that workers find constant monitoring stressful. ExpressVPN’s survey showed that 48 per cent of employees would take a pay cut over working in a surveilled environment.

But Dr Callum Cant, post-doctoral researcher at Oxford Internet Institute and author of Riding for Deliveroo, says the use of workers’ GPS and time data is integral to the algorithmic management systems that enable delivery and ride hailing services like Deliveroo and Uber.

“This constant monitoring is used more or less indirectly to pressure workers to constantly work faster, and is sometimes the sole basis for deactivating workers’ accounts,” he says.

“ It is a constant source of stress, which appears to have significant negative impacts on workers’ mental and physical health.”

Man wearing glasses leaning on table, looking at monitor, reading from screen, concentration, working, serious expression
ExpressVPN’s survey showed that 48 per cent of employees would take a pay cut over working in a environment of constant surveillance (Photo: Digital Vision/Getty)

Tim Gilbert, managing director of management consultant Right Management, believes that the growth of workplace surveillance is responsible for the weakening of trust between employers and employees.

“Installing bossware and using tracking tools is likely to compromise culture, and put a dent in the trust between manager and employee. It’s only human to feel uncomfortable with the idea of being monitored and having your movements tracked.”

The widespread assumption that tech equals efficiency and objectivity ignores the fact that algorithms often get it wrong. Layla, a waitress in Nottingham, experienced the degrading effect of tech being used for performance management when the algorithm started thinking her consistent five star customer reviews on TripAdvisor were bots.

And the most shocking example of misplaced trust in data was the Post Office scandal, when 736 sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses were prosecuted based on wrong information from a computer system called Horizon. The faulty software made it look like there were cash shortfalls, leading to one of the biggest miscarriages of justice in British legal history.

The blurring of boundaries of personal privacy, work, and surveillance have become an increased area of concern since the pandemic and are likely to get worse as technology develops even further, with the aim of maximised extraction of profit from labour.

In 2020, Barclays Bank faced a fine of $1.1bn for its use of surveillance technologies, after it was found to breach privacy laws. This wasn’t the first strike; in 2017 Barclays installed heat and motion sensors under employee desks that recorded how long staff were sitting working.

The intrusive nature of bossware technologies also means that many of our rights are subject to risk, says Philippa Collins, senior lecturer in law at the University of Bristol.

“For example, invasive monitoring at work jeopardises the right to privacy, AI calculating the desired pace of work can risk safety and health at work, and semi-automated dismissal processes mean employees aren’t dismissed fairly,” she says.

Many believe an official framework for operation of workplace tech is long overdue. “Technology adoption is crucial to improving our productivity and economic performance as a country,” says Darren Jones, MP for Bristol North West.

“But it can also be used in unacceptable ways, such as the surveillance of workers. The Government should get ahead of the curve and set down rules for what is and isn’t accepted.”

“Unless we introduce stronger regulation and greater collective bargaining rights, intrusive workplace surveillance tech risks spiralling out of control,” says Mary Towers, employment officer at the TUC.

As society becomes digital on every front, it’s becoming even harder to keep up with the changes in technological developments that impact every area of our lives. With the Online Safety Bill progressing onto the Lords in the coming months and the recognition that safety legislation is needed around technology, the ethical treatment of workers will need to become a priority.

*Names have been changed


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