Monitoring Remote Workers
Employees care about their privacy, but many employers cut into it to verify that they are working productively. During and following the Covid-19 pandemic, work-from-home became commonplace. With more and more people working remotely and on their personal devices, laws regarding privacy and monitoring of remote workers are ever salient. Use different word.
View the questions below to learn more. Consider visiting our other pages on privacy and workplace surveillance.
Yes. Regardless of whether employees work in the office, from home, or elsewhere, employers can monitor them in various ways – with few exceptions. Employers can surveil work on devices they loan to employees, can have employees install monitoring software on their personal electronics, and more so long as their monitoring is reasonable and serves a legitimate business purpose. Employers have a lot of leeway, but they are not completely unrestrained. View the questions below for more information.
The right to privacy is limited in the workplace; For remote workers, this can mean more than just a physical office space. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 (ECPA), a federal law that extended the Federal Wiretap Act, limits electronic surveillance. However, an exception to the ECPA allows employers to monitor employees if they obtain consent or if they have a legitimate business purpose for doing so. As explained in our page on surveillance at work, this gives employers a lot of flexibility. Some states, such as Connecticut and New York, have enacted laws to limit this.
Not always. Although there is no reasonable expectation of privacy in the workplace, work from home may fall into a gray area. In most states, employers can monitor workers if they do so in a reasonable manner and for business purposes. Some states, such as New York, may require employers to notify employees when they hire them of any electronic monitoring they will conduct.
Even where disclosure is not required, workers frequently agree to surveillance without realizing it. Hiring contracts often include provisions about privacy and electronic monitoring. In other words, many employees sign employment agreements without even realizing that, in doing so, they also sign away some of their privacy.
Assuming an employer has permission or is doing so for a legitimate business purpose, they can monitor workers in many ways. With remote work on the rise, many employers are using software electronically to surveil their employees. For example, employers might be able to check how active or idle a device is, view how often a person is on social media during work hours, may be able to receive screenshots of workers’ desktops, and sometimes even access employees’ webcams.
Maybe. Employers can monitor nearly anything on company-owned devices that employees use, but many remote workers use their own phones and laptops to do their jobs. When signing contracts when hired, employees may be asked to consent to installing monitoring software on their own devices for work purposes. Even so, the monitoring must be limited to a legitimate business purpose. For example, it would likely be fine for a boss to track how often an employee opens social media during work hours. It would be unacceptable, however, for a boss to view employees’ online activity when they are not expected to be working.
While employers may hold at-will employees accountable for off-duty conduct, they likely cannot electronically monitor off-duty conduct. Even if a boss has permission to track workers’ online activity during work hours, they cannot continue to do so at other times. Visit Workplace Fairness’ page on workers’ privacy with off-duty conduct for more information. Reference our page on Social Media and link to it.
Zoom is one of many companies that remote or hybrid workers have become all too familiar with. The video conferencing application gained massive popularity during and after the Covid-19 pandemic, though many workers may be unaware of how bosses can use it to monitor their activity. Employers can rewatch recorded meetings, and they can adjust settings to limit who participants can send messages to. Following backlash, Zoom removed several monitoring features that it had before – including a feature that allowed meeting hosts to read private messages and a feature that would notify the host if any attendant minimized the app for over 30 seconds.
Unsurprisingly, people value their privacy. Despite employees being hesitant about their bosses looking over their shoulders even when they work from home, many employers still monitor their remote workers. Employers can see multiple benefits that they may believe outweigh privacy, such as the ability to track workers’ digital activity to ensure that work is getting done.
Even though remote work has been found to be significantly more efficient than in-office work, some employers remain skeptical. Some remote workers try to get around monitoring, such as by using software that moves their mouse every few minutes to look like their computer is remaining active. Though, remote workers should be careful, as some employees strictly prohibit these tactics.
According to a 2023 survey of remote and hybrid workplaces, 96% of companies affirmed that they use software to monitor remote workers. Of them, only 5% claimed that their employees did not know they were being monitored.
View Workplace Fairness’ other pages on privacy and workplace surveillance, or visit one of the sites below for more information on remote workers’ privacy rights: