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Working from home - is your boss watching you?

For many the working arrangements put in place during the higher Covid-19 alert levels may have prompted longer term changes to how they work.

working from home

I suspect the advantages are exaggerated. Most people enjoy the social environment of the workplace and benefit greatly from the interaction that takes place every day in their office. No amount of technology, be it emails, Zoom or Microsoft Teams, overcomes this social time that we all have.

Many workplaces did not have flexible working arrangements until Covid-19. Lockdown required a rapid transition to working from home, including quickly implementing new software and technology. There were a lot of tech companies offering a range of options and many New Zealanders became very familiar with programmes they may have never used before.

Adapting to this new way of working, and then readapting to variations as the alert levels changed, was no doubt stressful for both workers and employers.

Recently, Frog Recruitment ran a survey of 900 New Zealand workers. The results were alarming - 64 per cent of those surveyed stated they felt more burnt out at work now than they did prior to the lockdown.

Undoubtedly the stressors created by the threat of Covid-19 and the subsequent economic fallout would have played a role. However, participants in the survey also reported another key contributor: the disappearance of boundaries between work life and personal life.

Some may have found the boredom of lockdown drove them to work extra hours. Others may have let work creep into their personal time out of fear of job insecurity.

However, there is an even more concerning blurring of the lines when employees are at home; when employers are monitoring them. Tech companies reported a 300 per cent increase in the sales of employee monitoring software since lockdown began.

This kind of software can track keyboard and mouse movements, what websites employees visit and can even take screenshots of the employee's screen throughout the day. Other more basic versions just show when employees log in or log out.

Software of this nature is usually marketed as a "helping hand" for managers who can't physically monitor staff in an office. They are not a new innovation, and many organisations used some form of monitoring software well before Covid-19 hit.

But does monitoring every click and keystroke invade too far on our personal lives when so many workers were working, and may continue to work, from home? What if the employee checks private emails? Or has a zoom call with a family member outside or even inside of work hours?

The answer will depend on whether the employees are aware of the monitoring, and what is in their employment agreements and policies.

Privacy law requires that employers be transparent with their employees about what personal information they are collecting and what purpose it is being collected for. Employers who have installed monitoring software on work computers should disclose that, particularly if they permit work computers to be used for personal use.

Several years ago Vodafone NZ successfully dismissed an employee for a number of issues including exactly this sort of conduct. The allegations included sending emails to friends and family which included derogatory references to Vodafone and her managers. The employee contended that those emails were private.

The Employment Relations Authority held that Vodafone had a clear email policy that stated it had the right to monitor all employee emails, and that derogatory language in emails was forbidden. The employee knew or should have known about the policy.

The authority found that even though what she wrote was intended to be private, she took the risk of disciplinary action by making derogatory comments during working hours and on Vodafone's technology and resources.

Employers are faced with very difficult financial times. Many of their staff are in the habit of working from home and will want to continue to do so. It does not seem unreasonable for employers to want to monitor what they do. That would normally take place in the office but is more difficult to do so when staff are not physically present. That is why technology steps in.

I predict the novelty of working from home will wear off and the many disadvantages for both workers and employers will soon become apparent.

The social interactions of an office are vital and provide social context outside of family. It is where you may find someone to confide in. Harvard sociologist Mario Small discovered people discuss important issues with their colleagues, because they are there. Conversation and proximity to others is what human beings crave and they will be drawn to the places that provide it. The potential advantages of working from home must be balanced against this.

We may not revert to the old normal but most organisations that radically reduce social contacts in an office and instead rely on technology will do so at their peril.