Workplace surveillance: How do Canadians feel about employee monitoring?

Published on 2022-05-30 by Tessa Anaya

As the workplace as we know it continues to digitalize, some processes such as workplace surveillance may have been expanded within companies. To help SMEs get a fuller picture of the uses, benefits, and sentiment around employee monitoring software, we surveyed over 750 employees in Canada.

A survey on workplace surveillance in Canada explores employee perceptions on certain monitoring processes such as the use of monitoring software

During the COVID-19 pandemic, some businesses turned to digital tools to adapt their tasks to support remote work. Managing employees virtually presents specific challenges, however, and some companies have chosen to use monitoring software to provide insight into employee workloads, productivity management, and for timekeeping and HR purposes.

Workplace surveillance practices are not without controversy. Although designed to give managers virtual oversight of employees, some data-collecting practices can leave employees with concerns over their privacy and security.

What is workplace surveillance? Before companies used software to monitor employees, workplace surveillance consisted of checking time-stamped cards or checking in with employees while they worked. In the digital age, employee monitoring software oversees workers in different ways, helping higher ups see how employees are managing their working hours, projects, or productivity levels, for example.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the privacy rights of Canadians in the workplace, the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act (PIPEDA) is lacking a clear policy. The Privacy Commissioner of Canada pledged to contribute to the expansion of private-sector legislation, but business owners may need clarity on how to appropriately collect, use, and safeguard employee data they can monitor in the meantime.

To gauge the current use and perception of these tools, Capterra Canada launched a survey of 752 part- and full-time employees in Canada (for the full methodology, scroll to the bottom of the article).

Which workplace activities are being monitored? 

What are the most common types of employee monitoring occurring in surveilled workplaces? According to the survey-takers currently using monitoring tools, most (81%) are using tools to track employee attendance. Considering the shift to remote work that some workplaces have experienced, managers and HR professionals may be using this kind of digital tool to keep track of working employees, a task they were previously able to perform simply by looking around the office.

which tasks are monitored by employers in the workplace

The most used tools are focused on employee presence and performance, two areas where managers have lost visibility due to the growth of the digital workplace. However, it seems very little surveillance of personal information was reported by survey respondents. Only 7% of employees have their personal social media monitored by employers, and 1% say their health is being tracked via wearable devices.

Outside of Alberta, British Columbia, and Quebec, there are no concrete laws on how much of employee data may be monitored, although unionized workplaces can organize agreements including such rules. This does not mean companies have no responsibilities towards employee privacy, however. Employees are able to report concerns regarding invasions of privacy or misuses of data to the Privacy Commissioner, possibly inciting investigations of an organization’s privacy practices.

Tip for SMEs: Although Canadian privacy laws are still in the process of being amended, the government has provided some guidelines specific to collecting employee information in the workplace. Human resource and compliance teams could also benefit from resources such as the Office of Privacy Commissioner’s tips for protecting employee privacy.

Use of workplace surveillance in Canada

Currently, 35% of Canadian employees surveyed work in a company that uses at least one employee monitoring tool – 28% of whom have been using them since before the pandemic and 7% whose employers implemented these tools after the arrival of COVID-19. 

While the majority of workers surveyed (47%) say their employers are not using any employee tracking software, this may vary depending on their position in the company. Employees at management level reported they were not under workplace surveillance at higher rates than those in entry-level positions, showing that employee surveillance may be used more often for those with lower ranks. 

The reasons for the disproportion likely relate to the levels of employees’ uncertainty over their company’s surveillance practices. Less experienced employees are more likely to be unsure about monitoring policies in their workplace. Managers were least likely to be unclear about such practices, as they may have had a hand in deciding to implement them.

 the use of surveillance in the workplace based on employee seniority levels

From a more general viewpoint, nearly one in five (18%) said they weren’t sure if these tools were actively used in their workplace. This uncertainty could imply a lack of transparency and communication of policies regarding workplace surveillance and employee consent.

Consent to monitor employees in the workplace

Some provinces may be in the process of legislating the disclosure of electronic monitoring to employees, but they are currently not obligated to do so. The majority of employees working in companies using monitoring software have been trained on it and/or have signed consent agreements (37%), but not all employees were provided the same information. 

Outside of those who’d signed consent agreements, the following levels of information were reportedly provided by employers to employees being monitored:

  • 24% were verbally informed
  • 23% were informed via email
  • 16% were not informed at all

Informing employees about monitoring practices and expressly asking for their consent are not the same thing, however. Asking for consent before using surveillance software implies that employees would have the right to decline. Though 40% of survey-takers asked to use monitoring software in their workplace accepted it because they felt OK with it, 23% said they felt insecure about not accepting it and a further 18% admit to accepting it out of pressure.

Tip for SMEs: A lack of information or choice can cause employees to feel ignored, disrespected, and unprotected; it can even lead to workplace stress. To create a work culture where employees feel considered, any digital monitoring practices should be explained and consented to by staff. Privacy policies should also be kept in an accessible place such as an employee portal so employees are always in the know.

Employee sentiment around digital monitoring in the workplace

When the use of employee monitoring software is debated, the question of how these practices make employees feel is raised. Amongst monitored survey-takers, most (65%) said the implementation of monitoring tools had no perceived effect on the work environment. Still, a portion of monitored respondents (23%) did feel it made the workplace more “hostile,” as in it added more stress to the job.

Despite the pressure staff could feel being monitored at work, those being monitored via software mostly felt it was implemented for beneficial reasons. According to respondents, companies had the following reasons for implementing employee monitoring software:

  • 47% believed it was used to improve productivity
  • 25% believed it was to verify employees worked their exact hours
  • 13% believed it was to track their workload
Tip for SMEs: If you have worries about employee perceptions of the monitoring procedures in your company, try to give employees as much information as possible about the specific reasons they are being implemented and the business goals they are meant to help achieve. Much like a company’s external privacy policy, it’s also advised that SMEs keep employees informed of privacy practices, perhaps via policy management software.

Perceived pros and cons of employee surveillance

Most employees surveyed (65%) don’t believe that being monitored would have any impact on the way they work, though 35% disagree (with 16% who think it would make them work harder and 19% who think it would make them work less hard). As the implementation of workplace surveillance measures can influence the at-work dynamic for some employees, it’s important for SMEs to consider the pros and cons before imposing changes. 

As for the benefits of employee monitoring tools, respondents thought the software could provide managers with more visibility into daily business activities, which could help them streamline workflows or identify bottlenecks. Other benefits were also related to helping employees, for instance ensuring they are paid correctly and not overworking themselves.

the benefits of employee monitoring software

Despite the benefits that workplace monitoring can provide to employees, concerns surrounding the software remain. Nearly three out of four employees surveyed (72%) thought these practices could lead to an invasion of personal privacy. 71% also thought they could have a negative impact on trust.

Although these are significant concerns, they could be more general fears rather than company-specific ones. When asked if they thought their company would violate privacy laws to monitor their work, most (60%) believed their employers would respect the laws. A quarter (26%) thought their company might monitor more than they should in some exceptional cases, while only 14% thought their employers would break privacy laws to monitor all employees. 

Considerations for employers

With many Canadians saying hybrid work makes them happier, employers considering implementing employee surveillance programs in place must be careful not to taint opinions of the remote workplace. 

According to a report by Gartner, employees feel more comfortable being monitored if they know what is being monitored and why. Obtaining consent may not currently be a legal requirement in Canada, but it can help staff feel trusted and considered.

Other considerations include:

  • Ensuring monitoring activities are in compliance with the latest privacy laws
  • Keeping collected data protected with cybersecurity measures
  • Providing information about monitoring practices in an accessible place like an employee portal
Looking for employee monitoring software? Check out our catalogue!

Survey methodology:

Capterra’s Digital Monitoring Survey was launched online in April 2022. The two-part survey was completed by 756 consumers and 752 employees. For the purpose of this article, we have focused on the employee group. The sample of participants is representative of the population of Canada regarding aspects of age and gender, and the criteria for selecting participants are as follows:

  • Canadian resident 
  • Over the age of 18
  • Must be a full- or part-time employee
  • Not employed in an ownership position
  • Be employed at a company with at least 2 employees
  • Able to identify the definition of an “employee monitoring tool” out of three multiple choice answers

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.

This article may refer to products, programs or services that are not available in your country, or that may be restricted under the laws or regulations of your country. We suggest that you consult the software provider directly for information regarding product availability and compliance with local laws.

About the author

Content Analyst at Capterra, dedicated to helping SMBs access the insights that elevate their organizations. B.A. in English, University of Michigan. Based in Barcelona.

Content Analyst at Capterra, dedicated to helping SMBs access the insights that elevate their organizations. B.A. in English, University of Michigan. Based in Barcelona.