Turning off your camera for a meeting and pyjama bottoms on under the desk. These small mercies got us through the past year but would come to an end under a new webcam surveillance regime, write Angus Williams and Eleanor Pringle

It was a bright cold day in March, and the clocks were striking thirteen.

As Winston Smith sat down at the desk in his spare bedroom the screen on his laptop read, BIG BOSS IS WATCHING YOU.

Just when the public thought the 2020s could not get any weirder, French software firm Teleperformance’s revealed its in-house webcam security system named TP Observer.

TP Observer uses AI to “monitor and track real time agent behaviour” while “effectively tracking any violations of pre-set business rules” such as “desk clutter” and use of mobile phones.

Should such behaviours be picked up, the software will send real-time alerts to managers.

Using AI – via webcams – productivity, time spent at desk and attentiveness reports for the day are also gathered by the software.

Not only this, the tool also tracks who is sitting at the desk for “fraud and security” purposes.

Teleperformance has said the tech will not be used on UK staff – despite having a presence in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland – but will roll out the solution across 30 other countries.

But any moves to bring the software to the UK would “almost certainly” be illegal, said Paul Bernal, an associate professor at the University of East Anglia (UEA).

East Anglian Daily Times: Paul Bernal, an associate professor at UEA who specialises in how the internet impacts upon privacy and other legal issuesPaul Bernal, an associate professor at UEA who specialises in how the internet impacts upon privacy and other legal issues (Image: UEA)

“This is effectively just gathering data, and often highly personal data, on the individual— so data protection applies,” he said.

Dr Bernal said that employers may be able to find a “legal excuse” under data protection law by getting employees to agree to terms and conditions, by inserting it as a clause into their employment contract, or by claiming the data gathering was in the “legitimate interest” of the business.

He added: “That doesn’t mean it’s a justifiable legal excuse. And it doesn’t mean that it will stand up to scrutiny if pushed because the sort of consent that employers are likely to get might well not be the express informed consent that you actually need for data processing.”

But, according to Dr Bernal, data protection law is not the only reason why bosses should not be snooping on their staff.

He said: “There are lots of different elements to this story. Some of which are kind of pure high tech, big brother stuff, but others are much more fundamental about working from home, and how we deal with it.”

One of the issues raised by the idea of monitoring staff is discrimination.

Dr Bernal said: “The various stories that have come out about employee monitoring have mostly been about monitoring people working at call centres and things like that.

“They haven’t been about monitoring, management or monitoring consultants or monitoring this kind of higher-level clerical kind of jobs.

“You trust your higher-level employees but you don’t trust your lower ones. So, you put in more monitoring. You invade their privacy more.

“In one way, that’s a kind of natural thing about the way that the employer-employee relationships work, but it’s also definitely discriminative.”

East Anglian Daily Times: AI surveillance of employees who work from home could be illegal and discriminatory, according to UEA academic Paul Bernal.AI surveillance of employees who work from home could be illegal and discriminatory, according to UEA academic Paul Bernal. (Image: PA Wire/PA Images)

The system could also be discriminatory in other ways, he said.

“If, for example, you are you are monitoring people to be at their desk and saying things like: ‘you can only go to the toilet for three minutes every two hours’.

“There are all kinds of issues with discrimination for health reasons and things like that. People may need to go to the loo more often.

“It might even be sexually discriminatory because women and men have different needs in terms of using the toilet.”

There is also the possibility that surveillance of this kind could used for union-busting, he said.

“One of the things about all this monitoring, is that it has what we call a chilling effect.

“If you’re being monitored all the time, you’re much less free with what you discuss. And it’s much harder to have the kind of open and genuine conversations that you need when you’re contemplating a big change.

“And I’m sure there are unscrupulous employers who are thinking on those terms.”

According to Dr Bernal all of these issues boil down to trust between a boss and their staff.

“One of the most common reasons to invade people’s privacy is that you don’t trust them.

“It’s not a good relationship for a boss to have with their employees.”

He did however say that certain monitoring was acceptable, for example a status indicator on software such as Microsoft Teams or even video monitoring during an exam sat at home.

“The line has to be drawn somewhere,” he said. “The question is finding the balance in each individual circumstance.

“If something feels creepy, but you can’t quite put your finger on why it feels creepy. That probably means there is something wrong.”

But the need to monitor in itself throws up questions for company culture, said Charlotte Bate of HR consultancy MAD-HR.

The director of the company, which has bases in Norwich, Ipswich and Chelmsford, said: “The issue comes down to trust. If you need to monitor your staff to these lengths then you need to be looking at your company culture and why managers don’t trust their staff enough to get on with their work.”

East Anglian Daily Times: Charlotte Bate, director of MAD-HR. Picture: Cherry Beesley, Simply C PhotographyCharlotte Bate, director of MAD-HR. Picture: Cherry Beesley, Simply C Photography (Image: © 2017 Simply C Photography)

Asked if monitoring could provide a safety net for staff who need proof of accidental distraction or interruptance of their working day, Ms Bate said: “Potentially it could be a good thing for people if they have say – a child who was poorly or off school and kept interrupting work.

"It could provide them with the ‘evidence’ if you will as to why they weren’t hitting their goals for the day.

“But the problem remains that you’re asking staff for evidence and why you don’t have the policies in place to be able to trust your employees and give them that freedom.”

The main aim of the software is to improve productivity – which took a somewhat predictable nosedive in 2020.

Only in the latter quarter of 2020 did it appear to pick back up, however this is due to the fact that Gross Value Added fell at a slower pace than the nosedive in the number of hours British people worked – meaning productivity of those still in their roles appeared to go up.

But even with productivity on the down, software like this is unjustified and could in fact make the problem worse, said Ms Bate.

“We all know the people who are first in the office and last to leave, but spend all day just looking at their computer screens instead of getting anything done.

"This software would only exacerbate that behaviour at home, with people potentially wanting to look busier when actually they would work better if they got up and went for a walk then came back to it.

“Managers have to appreciate that everybody operates in a different way - some people need freedom and they need to have breaks, some people work best when they’re sat down at a desk all day.

"But it’s not healthy for everyone to stare at a screen for eight hours straight and people shouldn’t feel that they have to.”

Ms Bate’s stance was reiterated by Cassandra Andrews, a motivation and employee engagement specialist, who said the best way to get value out of a team is to understand them as individuals.

The Norwich-based motivator said: “It sounds so simple: understand what’s important to your people. But that’s what really at the crux of it and yet so many managers don’t. It’s really simple, just sit down and identify what’s important to them: is it freedom, is it security, is it belonging on a team.

East Anglian Daily Times: Employee engagement specialist Cassandra AndrewsEmployee engagement specialist Cassandra Andrews (Image: Cassandra Andrews)

"You need to know what gets people out of bed in the morning and working at the desk in their spare room. Monitoring them via a webcam isn’t going to identify that, or work out how you can help them feel better about what they’re doing.”

She said: “A really simple tool I use is stop, start, continue. You can use it in any situation - ask your reports what you as a manager can start doing to support them, what you need to stop doing, and what you need to continue.

“Vice versa, you can ask your boss. You just need to be brave enough to ask the question and be ready to hear the answer. But those conversations will do a great deal more than productivity reports.”

Case Study: Could web cam surveillance actually work?

Monitoring employees via their laptops might be a problem in theory – but is there any motivation in practice?

High levels of control are definitely used in some businesses, said a former FTSE 100 chief executive, but snooping on employees while they work from home could have a harmful impact on their productivity.

Bridget McIntyre now runs a social enterprise called Dream On and sits as a non-executive director of a handful of well-known East Anglian companies. Previously she was one of only 16 women to be chief executives at a FTSE 100 company when she ran RSA Insurance.

East Anglian Daily Times: Bridget McIntyre, a former FTSE 100 former chief executive, now runs Dream On a social enterprise in SuffolkBridget McIntyre, a former FTSE 100 former chief executive, now runs Dream On a social enterprise in Suffolk (Image: Sarah Chambers)

She said: “When I joined one company, people were measured on answering the phone in three rings because they wanted the phone answered quickly.

“But what happened was people used to answer the phone in three rings, and then put it down.

“The data said they were answering the calls quickly but they were providing an absolutely abysmal service.

“People felt they were being measured on the wrong thing. So, we stopped that rule, but we also educated people on the power of answering the phone and providing good service to a customer.

“A happy customer doesn’t ring three times they ring once, so it doesn’t snowball on you.”

Mrs McIntyre said she could see similarities with the rise of bosses snooping on their staff.

“The moral of all this is be careful what you measure,” she said.

“I think the risk of some of this stuff is we’re penalising the one percent and not the other 99%. So I would be very mindful of that and making my decisions about what I need to observe, and what I can trust.

“There’s also a risk that monitoring your employees like this would affect their productivity.

“I think we get the best out of people, when we really focus on attitude and behaviour, rather than the monitoring it to death, and criticising.

“If you believe in who you work for and there’s a positive culture, you tend to contribute and want to do your best.

“If people are really committed to the company they work for, and they want to be there and they want to deliver for the company, and have a positive attitude, you tend to not have to observe them.”