Male office manager in casualwear and protective mask using laptop showing workplace safety during pandemic

How the Pandemic Has Reshaped the Relationship Between Workplace Safety, Efficiency and Privacy

In 2020 the workplace was in a state of flux. Owners, occupiers, employers and employees had to adapt to fast-moving regulatory advice and guidance. In March last year, at the announcement of the first lockdown, many of us were forced to work from home. Some did not have a choice. For those that had to continue being physically at their places of work, who could not do their jobs at home (e.g. construction workers) the simple act of doing their job suddenly became a threat to their own safety in ways that had felt unimaginable only weeks before.

Responsible employers whose staff had to be in the workplace adjusted quickly to make their colleagues safe. To meet the new challenges of operating in a Covid-secure workplace, and to meet the specific obstacles of social distancing, forward-thinking employers looked to technology. Should an employer want to, it has never been easier to track and trace their own employees’ actions and outputs.

An employer can know precisely where a member of their staff is and what they are doing, by way of smart buildings and wearables. For all but a number of very high-risk workplace environments, tracking the movements of staff is unnecessary, and unwanted. A modern employer takes great care to empower and trust their employees to deliver their workloads, not to act out of fear of being caught slacking off. Where tracking solutions have been implemented, there have occasionally been PR disasters. The most recent notable example being Amazon’s use of similar technology within their warehouses. However, when the pandemic struck, employers faced a dilemma. This technology could help improve the health and wellbeing of the people they employed, so should they use it?

We know that a number of high-profile employers have taken the decision to introduce, or at least trial the latest workplace safety technology. For example, the BBC have trialled a wearable that gives a warning when it comes within two metres of another unit. However, at the same time that workplace safety technology is being implemented, there has been a rise in so-called silent snooping technology, with PWC rumoured to have developed a facial recognition tool that logs when employees are away from their computers. Understandably employees have expressed concerns that a legitimate safety use case (e.g. the BBC) could be used to snoop on employees (e.g. PWC).

This is an issue that’s not going away. According to Ivan Manokha, a researcher at the University of Oxford who is studying transformations in workplace surveillance (as recently reported by the BBC), “the tendency to develop policies that monitor the health of employees is likely to grow further”.  The good news for those of us that believe in the power of technology to create safer workplaces is that there is a baseline of support from employees (a 2017 AXA Health Tech & You State of the Nation survey revealed that 57% of working adults would be willing to wear a tracking device and share data with their employer). In addition, there are ways to store data that might encourage employee trust, for example by working with third-party vendors who specialise in managing private data, who could hold the data separately from the employer.

Ultimately however, I believe the solution lies in common-sense transparency, good communication and upholding employees’ right to privacy. No one wants to be tracked or monitored, especially within working environments and it’s up to employers to choose technology that improves safety without being intrusive.

Employers need to be honest about their real intentions for workplace technology, and then they need to demonstrate how they can be held accountable. Communicating these issues with employees has been a challenge during the pandemic, when urgent solutions were needed, but will be imperative in the future as the nature of the workplace changes, so that we can all take advantage of new technology.