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Should bosses be able to spy on workers working from home?

July 21, 2020

We’ve all watched or read stories about surveillance culture; tales like George Orwell’s 1984, in which Big Brother can watch your every move.

As technology advances and working situations change, that fiction becomes ever-more a reality.

The latest opportunity for that to grow was during worldwide COVID-19 lockdowns, in which employers looked for ways to keep an eye on employees as they worked from home—including in New Zealand.

You could be being watched.

US-based Hubstaff reported a 300% increase in sales of time-tracking software in New Zealand during the first month of lockdown. This tracks when users log in and out, but can also record activity of employees throughout the day, even when their managers aren’t in direct contact with them.

(Some of you might be shuddering right now, or thinking back to your recent work-time online activity.)

So, what are the privacy implications of that?

The Privacy Act makes it clear that employees need to be made aware of any information being collected and the reason for its collection. They’re also entitled to know how it will be used and stored, who can access it, and whether it can be modified. Employers should not collect information if it intrudes to an unreasonable extent on the personal affairs of individual employees.

Privacy law issues aside, this kind of action can also have a big impact on staff morale, stress and turnover. So, while an employer might be seeking to protect productivity, in practice it might do the opposite. Less enthusiasm for work, less trust of employers, and possibly even more sick days being taken. And with a recent survey from the Privacy Commissioner showing nearly two-thirds of New Zealand are in favour of more privacy regulation, it’s an issue most people take seriously.

It’s up to each employer to decide the balance for their business. But you definitely want to make sure you’re on the right side of your legal obligations: that’s where we’re happy to lend you some advice.

[We acknowledge the input of Val Hooper Associate Professor and Head of Marketing at Victoria University of Wellington; Gordon Anderson Professor of Law at Victoria and Stephen Blumenfeld Director at the Centre for Labour, Employment and Work at Victoria]

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