The rise of employee surveillance software and why we must co-create the future of work

There are exciting opportunities in the world of work at this moment. But we must be careful about technology mission creep, especially monitoring software that goes against the positive vision of the future as work as one enabling flexibility, autonomy and trust. Andrew Pakes discusses the rise of surveillance software and why all stakeholders must come together to co-create a human-centred future of work
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About Andrew Pakes

Andrew Pakes is deputy general secretary and research director at Prospect Union in the UK representing over 152,000 members across tech, specialist, engineering and professional roles. He leads Prospect’s work around the future of work, tech, data rights and AI.

His work aims to empower workers around digital change and the implications on how technology is transforming the ways people are managed and work, including on mental health and wellbeing.  Andrew is also a member of the OECD Expert Group on AI and the UK Trade Union Congress AI Working Group. A strong supporter of equality diversity and inclusion, he also serves as secretary to Stonewall, Europe’s largest LGBT+ equalities charity.


We're at a real inflection point about how our economy works, the type of jobs people do and how digital technology supports both the ways we're managed but also the new types of jobs that are coming along.

We were already seeing widespread change to the economy prior to this pandemic - the advance of automation, different types of digital technology enabling us to work in different places - but there's been a real turbo boost to the digital change to the economy during the last 18 months. At its simplest level, digital technology has helped keep us safe, connected and working from home for large parts of this pandemic, whether you're in the UK or around the world.

But we also know that these changes bring new work pressures. And that's one of the big issues that we're concerned about. How do we maximise these benefits that digital technology can bring to our work lives but how do we manage the risks and potential harms they can create around it? And there are real pressures in there. It's not just jobs changing because they can be automated or because the power of technology can do new or wonderful things such as help us identify different health conditions and come up with solutions.

On the other side of the debit sheet, we also know there are a range of risks that we really need to talk about in putting our economy back together after this pandemic. Those risks include things such as the rise in surveillance software - the fact that many more of us in the economy of all job types are increasingly being monitored via our laptops, via our digital devices. That we're having our data harvested by employers and used to performance manage us, to decide whether we're a good worker or a bad worker, beginning to invade if we're remote working into our private spaces.

We're seeing the rapid development of artificial intelligence - decisions about us and decisions about the work we do taken without a human being involved anywhere along that. This pace of change, which we've always seen at different periods in our economy, is really important for productivity but it's got to be matched by the level of conversations and balance so that we get the kind of grooves of this new world of work right, so that it works for working people and isn't just about profit or outcomes. It's about the journey we're on in terms of that.

Taken together I think there's some really exciting opportunities in the world of work at the moment. We have a chance to hardwire flexible working into the everyday lives of working people, to ensure that remote working wasn't just about a pandemic situation but also it's about wellbeing, work-life balance, about ensuring that work fits us rather than us just fitting work.

So I think there's some really positive developments but to harness those we've got to have a much higher, better level of conversation about how we ensure that we get those benefits rather than engage in some of the mission creep that's often reported in the media nowadays.

The rise of surveillance software

We've been surveying and talking to our members consistently for the last two to three years about this development of surveillance and monitoring software.

So it wasn't a novel idea with the advance of the global health pandemic but we've definitely seen it increase at a rapid pace during this time, particularly as many of us have gone to remote or hybrid forms of working. Latest polling we've done of the working age population suggests that around a third of workers now believe that they are subject to some form of monitoring software.

And that's a real big change. This is now mainstream. When we talk about surveillance, it isn't a peripheral issue. It isn't an issue just related to small numbers of industries. This is a widespread work experience for millions of people. Now that software may be looking at the emails you check. It might be looking at the website addresses you look at, maybe going through your files, but increasingly we're seeing a really invasive form of surveillance software.

Our latest survey suggests around 10% of remote workers are now subject to camera monitoring in their own homes. That isn't the camera being on for a Zoom call to check in with your manager or team colleague or co-worker. It's the ability of your employer to switch your camera on at any point, or to have it constantly running in the background to check whether you're at your desk. Do we look interested enough? Are we looking like we're working hard enough? I think that's a real change of working lives.

In particular, what stood out from those figures is that double the rate of young workers, so nearly one in five young workers, said they were subject to it. And I think that may speak to some of the labour market inequalities, the type of jobs that younger workers are often doing. And this idea there may be a mismatch between the more senior role you have, the more autonomy you have at work compared to entry level or new starters or people going up the career ladder.

But that invasive level of technology is matched up by lots of different evidence that's come about during the pandemic around work intensification. People feel there's a kind of digital leash where they're trapped on their devices. Increasing pressure of the always-on work culture. People feel they have to be checking their phone first thing in the morning, last thing at night. Employers think because you're on Teams they can contact you at any point of the day or night. And that's getting really repressive in terms of our privacy rights, particularly if employers are now filming us work in our own homes but also into mental health and wellbeing. That pressure of not being able to switch off isn't good for individuals but it's not good for productivity either.

Co-creating the future of work

Jobs and the economy were already changing before the pandemic. And I think it's absolutely right that we focus on R&D and we focus on digital technology, new technologies like AI, as the future for the kind of high, skilled high productivity jobs that the UK can create. But one of the glaring emissions from the Government's recent AI strategy and through lots of its national strategies and plans around digital technology is the absence of workers themselves.

We are going to fail to harness the maximum benefits from this new economy, unless we make this a shared endeavour. So that when we talk about AI, it can't just be workers need to be skilled because that's a really passive way of doing it. We need to learn from better economies who are more productive, where they involve workers already in these conversations, be it through unions, be it through other mechanisms, the sense of agency that workers have as individuals and groups to contribute towards innovation is immense.

And there's already powerful evidence that highlights that those competitor countries, which are further down the line for adopting new technology, tend to be those which have higher levels of workers involved in their economy, be that with government or at employer level. So the evidence is there. There is a clear pattern that says, here's how we achieve change, we achieve the best outcomes from that when we do that in the form of social partnership. And that's got to be something that government adopts from the highest level because it needs leadership, but it needs to flow across all levels of the economy. If we want to make AI work for Britain and we want to make it work for jobs, the people that do the jobs - workers - need to be part of those conversations and partners in change.

Three steps organisations can take now to make the future of work a positive one

We have huge opportunities to make the future of work something which is around shared prosperity and good jobs. And I think that should be a goal that unites employers and workers and unions together. So the things I would really ask employers to think about is firstly involve people in change. There is not a monopoly on good ideas or practical examples of what it means in terms of business, processes, design, products and services. Let's do it together.

Secondly, throw away the old assumptions. Let's focus on purpose and the ends. What are we trying to achieve? What are you trying to achieve? And then let's work through the means to do that. So it's not about location, it's not about the old ways of doing things. It's about coming up with the best ways to achieve the things you exist for as a business or organisation.

And thirdly, let's share better. Let's be more generous between companies, within companies, between businesses. The challenges facing us pre pandemic were pretty big. But with Brexit, coming out of the pandemic, we really need to improve the way the British economy works. And in partnership in organisations and across organisations strikes me that better together is always better than isolation.

This interview is part of the Great Work Reset series produced by The People Space in partnership with The Open University Business School

Published 15 December 2021
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