Remote but under surveilance – the perils of home working

David McGeough, Director of International Marketing, Wrike 

The pandemic has brought with it challenges for SMEs in the past few months. The rapid  transition to remote working was perhaps one of the most significant.

Whilst some organisations were more prepared than others, many found themselves entering uncharted waters, with little experience of managing remote workforces.

According to McKinsey, 80 per cent of SMEs have already seen a direct revenue impact as a result of COVID-19. With the knock-on effects still ongoing, ensuring productivity is likely to be the key to business survival moving forward. But, with living rooms becoming the new office spaces and family members – including pets and children – co-inhabiting these spaces, there can be many distractions for remote employees.

For some business leaders, the desire to overcome these distractions and maintain productivity has resulted in aggressive surveillance measures, with technologies being used to monitor staff and their activity levels.  But, as this market grows, so do concerns around employee privacy.

Employee monitoring is nothing new. Even before Covid, many banks and financial institutions already had these technologies in place as a legal requirement. Last year, Gartner reported that more than half of organisations were using some form of ‘non-traditional’ employee-tracking technique.

I-spy: one system can take a photo of the user every five minutes

Yet, in the wake of the pandemic, and with the economy in turmoil, businesses are facing an uncertain future. This has caused a spike in the number of businesses resorting to surveillance tools designed to track employees whilst they work from home.

These technologies can monitor web browsing, record the amount of time spent on an application, and even capture a user’s screen. One such technology – Sneek – even takes a photograph of employees every one to five minutes via their webcam to make sure that they do not leave their computer unattended. This business alone saw its sales increase tenfold within the first few weeks of the pandemic.

Last month, Big Four accountancy firm PwC was the latest in a long line of organisations to come under fire for its development of a facial recognition tool that logs when employees are absent from their computer screens.

As part of the programme, workers caught away from the screen are required to provide a written explanation, even if it was for a bathroom break. Whilst PwC representatives claimed the tool was designed for compliance, many in the industry saw it as a step too far.

The truth is that surveillance technologies often fall short of their productivity promise. In fact, investing in such systems can have an adverse effect, creating a barrier of distrust between employers and their workforces.


At best, they are intrusive and counterproductive, negatively impacting motivation levels and business culture. At worst, they are immoral and verge on breaching employee rights – with many individuals initially unaware of the extent to which they are being watched.

There’s no doubt that working remotely takes discipline. There are a lot more distractions and balancing home and work life can be difficult when both are taking place under the same roof. But businesses need to trust their employees, supporting them and ensuring that they complete tasks to the highest possible standard, without monitoring their every move.

The first step towards establishing a positive remote working culture is ensuring transparency throughout an organisation, regardless of where employees are based. Part of this will involve enabling staff to collaborate and communicate as freely as if they were in the office.

By implementing video conferencing software and chat services, as well as remote collaboration platforms, small and medium-sized businesses can ensure that individuals remain connected throughout this period and beyond.

those most engaged at work are those that enjoy their work and can collaborate well

The ability to maintain open lines of communication with other team members is also imperative to productivity. In fact, our most recent Employee Engagement survey found those most engaged at work are those that enjoy their work and can collaborate well. The ability to interact with colleagues effectively means that, even when employees are struggling with their workloads, they will feel supported.

Time and time again, it’s been proven that happier workers and more productive workers. With surveillance technologies often causing heightened levels of stress and anxiety for employees, they cannot be the answer to the current challenge around remote workforce productivity.

Instead, businesses need to focus on establishing a culture that encourages transparency at all levels. Employees need to feel as if they are trusted to get their tasks done even when they are not in the office, rather than worried that their every move is being watched and judged. It is only then that they will feel both engaged and empowered to go the extra mile, boosting productivity during the pandemic and beyond.