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This is the weekly Careers newsletter.

Radhika Panjwani is a former journalist from Toronto and a blogger.

How should employers measure productivity in a remote or hybrid work model? And is it legal for a company to plant, track and collect data from a surveillance tracking software embedded in a worker’s device without their consent?

Navpreet Chhina, a lawyer with Inlet Employment Law in Port Moody, B.C., has been mulling these questions in the wake of a recent B.C. Civil Resolution Tribunal decision, which ordered an accountant who was fired to pay her former employer $1,500 as reimbursement for 50.76 hours of “time theft” or hours she claimed to have worked.

The tribunal heard the employer, Reach CPA Inc., had installed the surveillance program TimeCamp on the employee’s work laptop. Data, including video gathered from the tracking software, was reviewed and produced as evidence for the “theft.”

Time theft can be a grey area, Ms. Chhina said.

“What constitutes work?” she asked. “For example, how do employers categorize [and enforce policies around] casual team-building interactions with colleagues? How do these tracking systems account for offline work? More broadly, how do you foster a workplace that allows for basic tenets like trust and good faith, while implementing tools to surveil productivity?”

Productivity tracking software like TimeCamp can measure how much time an employee spends on different tasks, whether the computer was used for non-work activities, such as streaming a TV show and if the employee printed pages.

Conversations about employee surveillance however must centre around consent and impact, as well as reasonable limits, otherwise there could be unforeseen legal repercussions, Ms. Chhina warns.

Employee privacy

Ms. Chhina said the tribunal’s decision could encourage other employers to surveil their workers, which, unchecked could result in privacy violations.

Also, potential problems could arise if employees:

  • Feel they must accept unfair and violating data and privacy policies to keep their job.
  • Do not know they are downloading invasive tracking software on personal devices used for work.
  • Unwittingly hand over data on what they do after hours to their employer.

“The one issue that was not fully discussed in this case was whether the employee fully understood what the time-tracking software did, and whether she consented to the full scope of the data collection,” Ms. Chhina said. “This is a live issue in many claims involving time-tracking software because not only could an employer access their employee’s personal information and data using software, but the company providing the software could also be collecting, aggregating and storing non-work-related personal information for the software company’s own use.”

She said if there’s a risk that private and confidential information could be accessed by an employer-mandated time-tracking software, then the employee who must accept time-tracking software should be informed of this risk.

Trust is a two-way street

Sandra Robinson, an organizational psychologist at the Sauder School of Business at the University of British Columbia, says tracking or micromanaging employees with software erodes trust and goodwill.

Organizations should track outcomes, not processes. Even before the pandemic, there was a strong push to make work more results oriented, Prof. Robinson said.

Second, employers must focus on playing the long game and build a high-quality relationship with their employees through good remuneration and treating them with respect.

“Your people are more than keystrokes on the computer screen,” Prof. Robinson said. “You should be monitoring quality output, not the minutes spent on the screen.”

Surveillance software that records every key stroke and mouse click to gauge whether an employee is working is counterproductive and will end up costing the organization, she said.

“Working adults want autonomy,” Prof. Robinson said. “You don’t want your employees to feel they’re not trusted. It could backfire because the reason most companies are doing remote or hybrid is because they’re trying to attract and retain employees. If you micromanage them, they will leave.”

What I’m reading around the web

  • The changing world of work is prompting new designations and work titles such as chief remote officer, chief innovation evangelist and more says this article on BBC News. The author argues that relaxing the rules to create arbitrary titles may not always be the best approach.
  • This story in Fast Company offers a blueprint for unemployed people who want to go on the path of self-employment. Tips include networking, putting aside shyness or doubt when selling your company, perfecting the sales pitch and more.
  • Disney chief executive officer Bob Iger told hybrid workers that they must return to corporate offices four days a week starting March 1, according to this CNBC article. “As I’ve been meeting with teams throughout the company over the past few months, I’ve been reminded of the tremendous value in being together with the people you work with,” Mr Iger wrote in an e-mail to employees.

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