Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic changed office life, many employees have become used to hybrid or fully remote schedules. Supervising remote workers can present challenges and some employers are seeking ways to monitor their employees, but how do UK workers feel about the use of employee surveillance methods?

Image of files containing private employee data being filtered and monitored

COVID-19 has changed how employees go about their daily routines. In January and February of 2020, 5.7% of employees were working exclusively from home. By April of that year, the number of homeworkers had surged to 43.1%.

Human resources (HR) teams have had to find ways to manage employees working away from the office, and the use of computer monitoring software has raised questions about the ethics of employee surveillance. We surveyed 744 employees in the UK to find out what they thought about the use of employee monitoring software and whether there has been an increase in workplace monitoring due to the pandemic. The full methodology can be found at the bottom of this article.

Remote work has changed the employee-employer ecosystem 

For many employees, remote work offers benefits such as less commuting time, greater autonomy and flexibility, and a better work-life balance. Now that many workplaces have reopened since the end of COVID-19 restrictions, one in five British employees still wants to work full time from home.

Some businesses have decided to deploy solutions such as employee monitoring tools to track productivity when staff are working from home. However, the use of employee monitoring software can raise concerns about the level of surveillance in a worker’s home space. How do employees feel about the use of workplace monitoring, and has it increased since the pandemic? 

Monitoring software was already in place before COVID-19

The number of respondents who worked at least partially from home jumped from 4% before the health crisis to 52% during the pandemic. However, nearly a quarter (23%) of all respondents said that their employer already used employee surveillance methods before COVID-19. Only 6% noticed the adoption of an employee monitoring tool afterwards

Chart showing whether employers use employee monitoring tools

What is employee monitoring?

Employee monitoring involves the use of workplace surveillance methods to track employee productivity and ensure the appropriate use of corporate resources.

Businesses may want to measure employee workload, productivity, attendance, and security, among other performance indicators. This can be carried out with tools such as employee monitoring software, GPS tracking, CCTV cameras, and biometric technology, to name a few.

Several actions can be tracked, such as internet usage, screen videos, keystroke logging, time tracking, GPS, emails, and even potentially behavioural monitoring with the use of biometrics.

Most managers trust their employees

When talking about employee monitoring, it is important to know the level of trust managers have in their staff and vice versa. 

Our respondents generally think that their managers trust them. 81% rate their manager’s level of trust towards them taking breaks during the day as ‘quite’ or ‘very trusting’. 

Similarly, employees feel that they had their manager’s trust —combining respondents who replied with ‘very trusting’ and ‘quite trusting’— when it comes to ending the workday when work is complete (80%), performing non-work related tasks during working hours (69%), and maintaining the quality of work (83%). 

Chart showing how employees rate their manager’s trust towards certain activities

In addition, respondents indicated that they were generally satisfied with how they were being managed. 57% feel that they are managed just right, with 12% feeling like they could do with a little bit more support. On the other end of the scale, 23% of respondents consider that they would be better off being left to their own devices, but that management levels are not overbearing, while 9% of respondents feel that they are being micromanaged. 

Only 51% of workers use their company computer strictly for work

Businesses need to facilitate employees with the right tools and equipment to carry out their work efficiently. However, only 51% of respondents use their company computers solely for work.  Whether it is because many company computers now lie in living rooms at home or because employees are prone to distractions, our survey indicates that many workers are using their company computers for personal use. 

The most common types of personal tasks respondents carry out on company computers include checking and responding to personal emails (24%), booking medical appointments (23%), and shopping online (23%). Among the other answers given, 11% of survey participants even admitted to using their work computers to visit job application websites. Employers may warrant using employee monitoring tools to ensure that working hours are spent productively, that company resources are being used appropriately, and that sensitive company data are safeguarded against potential cybersecurity threats from external websites.

Attendance and time management are the most monitored workplace activities

When we asked survey respondents who were aware they were being monitored in the workplace about the types of activities their employer tracked, the top three monitored activities were:

  • Attendance (log in/out, sick days): 79%
  • Time management (time spent on individual tasks and projects): 65%
  • Workload management (work schedule, action lists, key performance indicators [KPIs]): 51%

These monitoring activities appear to be orientated on improving employee efficiency and productivity. Tracking this type of activity can help HR teams manage working hours, better manage staff schedules, and protect employees from mistreatment, such as uncompensated overtime, by respecting UK Working Time Directives.

Nearly a quarter of monitored employees were not informed of this activity

Surveilling employee behaviour may have benefits, but notification is an essential element of employee monitoring. Although employers do not always need employee consent, workers should be informed that their activities are being monitored.  However, 24% of respondents who say their employer uses an employee monitoring tool have not been informed by HR or management about the use of employee monitoring and their rights. 

chart showing whether management or HR have informed employees about the use of monitoring methods

Under what conditions can UK employers monitor their workers?

In the UK, there are expectations of privacy whereby employers need to ensure that any monitoring of certain information or locations is justified.

  • If employers want to monitor employees via any means that involve data, these methods must comply with the Data Protection Act 1998 and the UK General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
  • Businesses may have to carry out a Data Protection Impact Assessment (DPIA) to justify their monitoring activities, methods, and expected impact.
  • While employee consent is not a legal requirement when it comes to monitoring, employers should inform workers they are being monitored to comply with GDPR.
  • There are laws that protect employee privacy in the workplace, and employers must comply with these laws, such as Article 8 of the Human Rights Act 1998, which provides the right to respect for a person’s private and family life. 

46% of monitored employees freely accepted surveillance measures

When we asked survey participants who had been informed about employee monitoring if they felt pressured to accept these measures, 46% of respondents said they accepted being monitored by their employers because they wanted to, but 41% accepted out of pressure or because they felt insecure about not accepting. The remaining 13% were not sure why they accepted. 

43% of respondents who have been monitored by their employers consider this is being done to improve employee productivity. 32% think this is a method to verify they work the exact hours they need to, and 13% believe their employers track their work routine through these methods.

Tip for businesses

Employers should consult with their employees when considering introducing monitoring tools and address any concerns during the implementation process. This procedure should be as transparent as possible and should clarify what is being measured and why, while explaining the benefits of adopting these tools.

Staff understand employee monitoring benefits but have concerns

Employee monitoring may sound somewhat Orwellian, but many employees are aware of its potential to improve the workplace. When we asked all the survey participants to select up to five of the biggest benefits, the top five chosen were:

  • Employers can ensure staff are never underpaid; for example, if they work overtime (43%)
  • Employers have more insight into daily business operations (38%)
  • Employers have more visibility of high and low performers (37%)
  • Employers can help staff work more efficiently in allocated work hours (36%)
  • Managers can delegate work more easily, based on staff workload (34%)

On the other hand, many respondents have concerns about employee monitoring. The top five concerns are:

  • Invasion of personal privacy (73%)
  • Negative impact on trust (72%)
  • Increased stress from staff (65%)
  • Negative impact on morale (58%)
  • Staff feel pressured to work extra hours (45%)

Despite acknowledging the benefits of employee monitoring, 60% of respondents consider these tools to have a negative impact on the business they work in. Less than half (45%) of employees think that UK companies would only monitor employees within the applicable laws. However, trust is higher when it comes to their own companies, with 64% trusting that their company abide by legal requirements. 

Businesses may use employee monitoring tools to improve productivity and facilitate workflows. However, they need to make sure that employees trust them when they are being monitored. This trust can be built by respecting privacy concerns and ensuring GDPR compliance so that workers understand that these tools are beneficial to business and employee objectives and are not invasive.

Key takeaways

  • Employee monitoring in UK companies appears not to have significantly increased during COVID-19
  • Businesses monitor employees mainly to supervise attendance and for time management
  • Nearly a quarter of monitored employees were not informed about the use of monitoring tools
  • Nearly half of employees carry out non-work-related activities on their work computers
  • One of the main benefits of employee monitoring for staff is to track hours worked so that they are not underpaid
  • Many workers express concern about the negative impact of employee surveillance on privacy and trust
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To gather the data for this report, we conducted an online survey of 744 employees in February 2022. The selection criteria for the participants are as follows:

  • Resident in the UK
  • Over 18 years old
  • Must be employed full-time or part-time
  • Must be employed at a company with at least 2 employees
  • Respondents did not have ownership of the company and ranged from juniors and trainees to being in intermediate and management roles
  • Respondents must be able to identify employee monitoring tools as a tool to track employee workloads, tasks and attendance

NOTE: This document, while intended to inform our clients about the current data privacy and security challenges experienced by IT companies in the global marketplace, is in no way intended to provide legal advice or to endorse a specific course of action. For advice on your specific situation, consult your legal counsel.