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Ethical Best Practices for Monitoring Remote Employees

Richard B. Johnson

Co-Founder + Partner
August 17, 2021

In a post-COVID world, with a lot more employees working remotely, a lot of employers are becoming more interested in using software tools and apps to track their teams. But how much tracking is actually necessary to maintain employee productivity?

 

Terms like “tracking” and “monitoring” can bring to mind an Orwellian dystopia for employers and employees alike. At Ascent, we prefer to think about this in terms of accountability and mutual trust. A starting point for thinking about keeping remote employees accountable is thinking about how much mutual trust is already built into your workplace culture. If you have regular check-ins with your employees, and you see projects getting completed and quality work continuing to get done while employees are working from home, then it’s unlikely that you need to be tracking your employees’ every move. We always find that workplaces where there is a sense of mutual accountability and open communication are the ones that function the best, and require fewer strict monitoring measures. 

Considerations

The most important thing we want to drive home is that measures put in place to check that employees are doing their work need to be proportionate to the concerns we have that they’re not doing their work. If your employees are consistently turning in high quality work from their homes, then they can probably be trusted to conduct themselves without micromanagement, and maybe you don’t need to implement any accountability systems beyond weekly check-in meetings. 

It’s reasonable to expect that your employees are going to get up from their desks to go to the bathroom, or make coffee, or answer a phone call — just as they would if they were at the office. Unless there’s a specific concern that your employees are not trustworthy, it’s just not reasonable to have them chained to their desks by something like keystroke detection software. Just because a software exists does not mean it is ethical to use it

Sometimes, and especially for workplaces where remote work is relatively new, employers will want to wait and see if there’s an issue. That could come in the form of you noticing productivity issues, or it could be employees coming to you and saying they need more visibility on current projects. Many employees find that having some form of two-way visibility, for example in the form of project-management software or a time-tracking app, gives them clarity on what they’re supposed to be doing, and makes it easier to stay focused and on-task. 

Just make sure that you’re not overblowing the need for monitoring, because that will be a death-knell for the relationship. As we’ve talked about in previous articles, two-way communication is vital. Employers should be clear about their expectations, and employees should be mindful of voicing other time commitments or planned work hours. Especially with remote work, communicating your expectations is the best way to head off any confusion before it becomes a conflict. Do you expect that your employees are going to be online between certain hours of the day? Do you expect them to be answering phones or replying to emails within a certain timeframe? Are they aware of deadlines and deliverables for the project they’re assigned to? Make sure that employees have the information they need — and make yourself available to answer any additional questions that might arise.

Employee Hours

One area where we do recommend specific accountability is in assuring and keeping track of your employee’s work hours.  

 

You have an obligation under employment standards to make sure that you’re keeping track of people’s hours. However, you will also want to make sure that they are not working at all hours simply because their home office is accessible at all times.

If an employee is coming into the office, then it’s easy to keep track of their work hours. If an employee is there, the assumption is they’re working — and if they’re not at the office, they’re not on the clock. When employees are working from home, it’s a bit more challenging to find that clear separation between work and free time. 

Especially during the COVID pandemic, when people may have fewer reasons to leave the house, it’s all too easy for people to work longer into the evening or to jump on the computer in the middle of the night when they can’t sleep. These activities might seem relatively harmless, but what you may be doing is unintentionally allowing your employees to work overtime. This can lead to a large overtime claim if you’re not actually assigning those hours. It’s a good idea to communicate your expectations for how many hours a day you want your employees working.

Using a time tracking app or requiring employees to submit timesheets can be strategies both for ensuring employees are working their paid hours, and ensuring that they are not working during non-work hours. Tracking hours also makes it easier to provide employees with a bit more flexibility, because you’re not strictly relying on start and end times to figure out if someone is fulfilling their commitment to a certain number of hours.

Privacy Legislation

Keeping track of what is happening with your remote work arrangements also involves assessing what employers can and cannot do under BC privacy laws. Each province and territory has their own privacy legislation, and there’s an overarching federal set of statutes that will apply as well. In BC, privacy at public bodies — like government or media offices — is governed by the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA). Private entities are covered by the Personal Information Protection Act (PIPA).

As an employer, it’s a good idea to make sure you’re not gathering, using, or disclosing information in a way that you shouldn’t be. With employee accountability, your main concern will be gathering information, but you also need to be cognizant of how you’re using, storing, and potentially disclosing that information to parties within or outside of the organization.

It’s important to gain employees’ consent if you’re going to be gathering their data. Section 7 of PIPA defines what employee consent looks like —  for example, you may have employees sign a consent form that explains what data is being collected, and how and where it is disclosed.

Ways to Hold Employees Accountable

Keeping your employees accountable for their work is not only a matter of letting employees know that there is oversight — it’s also a matter of keeping employees engaged and feeling like they are part of a team. Inadequate guidance and accountability can leave employees feeling adrift on their own, with little motivation to be productive. 

Check-In Meetings, Reporting, and Communication Tools

Employees need to feel engaged and valued in the organization to contribute meaningful work. Keeping employees engaged is often just a matter of engaging with them. We recommend holding team meetings at least once a week — depending on the size of your organization, this might be a meeting for the entire staff, or a meeting for each department, supplemented by regular communication between department heads. Of course there will be some days where employees are working independently and there’s no need for check-ins. But ideally, no more than two or three consecutive days should go by without there being some communication. Not only is this important for the business but it keeps morale up and allows people to feel involved with the business on a more human level as well.

Outside of more formal meetings, it’s also good to have some kind of internal messaging system for quick questions and “watercooler chat.” Messaging apps like Slack make it easy to not only share pertinent information and status updates, but to post about personal goings-on, activities, and achievements outside of work — the type of conversation that would normally happen in a shared office space.

Software and Other Remote Work Tools

It may be the case that the nature of your workplace calls for employee monitoring beyond what’s talked about above. That’s okay – just make sure you’re implementing software and other monitoring measures in a way that’s reasonable and clear. It’s very important to make sure that your employees are fully aware of any collection of their personal information that will accompany the use of any tool, even if it’s just a name or employee number.

For example, maybe you’re using a software that will allow people to sign in and out to show that they are online and working, or on a break. Be clear and transparent in informing your employees when they will be expected to sign on or off, how long they are expected to be online each day, and what information is being collected, be that a name, an IP address, information from their web browser, or anything else. It’s also important to inform employees of how that information is being used. Who in the organization has the ability to view that information? Is the information visible or accessible to anyone outside of the organization? Where and for how long is the information being stored?  The developers or administrators of the software are going to necessarily have this information, so it may be just a matter of sharing the software administrator’s privacy policy. You want to let your people know so they can make an informed choice — even if the choice is one of agreeing to the terms or finding work elsewhere.

What Can Employees Do About Potential Privacy Violations? 

Everyone has a different level of comfort when it comes to workplace accountability and monitoring practices. If you have a concern about how your information is being tracked or used, the first step should always be to open a dialogue with your employer and find out if a compromise or an agreement can be reached. Send an email or arrange a meeting with your manager — it’s important to be able to have some record of this conversation, as evidence in case things escalate.

If you are unable to resolve the issue, or if there’s been a breach of your personal information and it isn’t something that your employer can fix, then you can make a complaint to the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner (OIPC).

The OIPC will assign an investigator who will liaise with involved parties to work toward a resolution. If a resolution is unable to be reached, the OIPC investigator will have the power to issue fines and directions to the employer. 

In BC employment law, privacy rights can lead to isolated issues — they’re often treated as separate from wrongful dismissals and workplace human rights complaints. Exactly what kinds of financial penalties can occur for privacy violations varies widely and depends largely on the facts of the case.

Conclusion

The bottom line here is to consider your relationship with your employees. Are you on good terms? Is there a sense of mutual trust and respect? While oversight is necessary in every workplace, it’s important not to go overboard and turn your organization into a police state. Tracking your employees’ every move can backfire and lead to a breakdown in trust, productivity, and motivation. 

 

We also want to stress that Canada’s workplace privacy laws are, in many cases, quite different from their American counterparts. If you’re interested in an employee tracking tool used by an American company, be careful to confirm that that tool or method is actually in line with Canadian privacy policies. It’s a great idea to familiarize yourself with PIPA — the OIPC also has resources for employers and employees alike.

 

With the recent, significant uptick in remote work arrangements, these issues are critical to the health and well-being of your employees and your businesses.  Call us to discuss!