Surveillance in Employment: the case of Teleworking

N Ben Fairweather


This paper looks at a variety of ways in which teleworking can be linked to surveillance in employment, making a number of recommendations about how telework can be made more acceptable.

Telework can give substantial benefits both to employers and to many employees. The idea of introducing telework, however, may be resisted by both managers and unions. The potential benefits of telework are briefly discussed, together with the types of telework, and questions of definition.

The paper looks at one of the major inhibitors to the introduction of telework: a feeling on the part of managers that they will loose control over their workers. Traditional controls are not available in teleworking situations in the same way as they are with on-site workers. Such traditional controls include being able to monitor time of arrival and departure, and being able to monitor ‘what work is being done when’ by looking over the shoulder.Traditional controls have been called a type of surveillance by respected scholars: this argument is briefly discussed.

Illustrations are given of how technological methods can allow managers to keep as close an eye on the actions of teleworkers as could be kept if the workers were ‘on site’. It is also shown how it is possible for managers to monitor teleworking employees in more detail than the same managers could traditionally. Methods include monitoring the number of key-strokes per hour. In such circumstances employees may feel they are under surveillance of a kind they resent more than traditional workplace monitoring. Where technological methods have been introduced for such detailed monitoring or surveillance, they have been associated with very low employee morale. The possibility is discussed that the prospect of such low morale can, in turn, dissuade employers from implementing telework.

The unenthusiastic attitude to telework of trades unions is considered, including their opposition to the possibility of detailed technological surveillance of workers by managers.

Another particular reason covered why trades unions may be unenthusiastic about teleworking is that it may inhibit union surveillance of working conditions. This is because teleworking makes it more difficult for the union to monitor whether employers are meeting their obligations, such as that to ensure health and safety in the workplace.

For an employer to meet their legal requirement to ensure health and safety may well require inspections of the teleworkplace. The possibility that when the teleworkplace is in the home, there may be an invasion of privacy associated with such inspections, is considered. The potential that if used systematically such possible invasions of privacy could amount to surveillance, and may be perceived and resented as surveillance even when not used systematically, is also raised.

The possibility that there is a moral obligation on employers to supply equipment for use by teleworkers in the teleworkplace is briefly looked at. Mention is also made of the possibility that meeting such an obligation simultaneously enables employers to include technologies that enable surveillance of such matters as the number of key-strokes per hour, or what non-work activities computers are used for. Such surveillance by employer-supplied equipment could be conducted without the employee knowing that the equipment is capable of being used as such a tool of surveillance.

One of the recognised problems associated with telework is that teleworkers may feel isolated. Methods to counter this include the provision of video-conferencing facilities. A side effect of video-conferencing is that whatever is in the background may be seen. The possibility that this can provide an invasion of privacy that could be used by managers as a tool for surveillance is also discussed, together with ways of avoiding this.

Another method to counter feelings of isolation among teleworkers is to facilitate peer-to-peer communication. If such peer-to-peer communication is facilitated through video-conferencing, e-mail or telephone calls at the employers expense, there again may well be a strong potential for surveillance of such peer-to-peer communication. The possibility of such surveillance is raised, together with the possibility that fear of such surveillance may inhibit peer-to-peer communication, and thus prevent it from reaching its potential as a means of countering isolation.

By its nature, teleworking employment involves the use of communications technologies in communications between the employee and the employer. This leaves open the possibility that such communications may be intercepted by third parties. Competitors may seek to intercept such communications for competitive advantage, while security agencies may do so in the name of public welfare. There is consideration of the possibility that these types of potential interception could be seen as a reason against introducing telework. Issues in countering such interception are also examined.

The overall conclusion of the paper is that whether or not the technologies associated with telework are actually used to conduct surveillance, the potential for them to be so used exists. Fears of such use, in turn, may turn potential teleworkers, employers of teleworkers, and trades unions against this mode of employment, regardless of whether such fears are justified. However, much can be done by employers to reduce such fears.