Big Brother Bank: Barclays monitors employees

March 24, 2020


2 min read

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What's going on here?

Barclays introduced technology to monitor employees’ work activity but axed it soon after.

What does this mean?

The software, provided by a company called Sapience, was introduced in February 2020 in Barclays’ product control department. This system monitored employees’ activity in real-time, as well as the length of their breaks. Staff subsequently received daily updates which highlighted when they were not active enough. Employees were advised by the system to “avoid breaks”, and toilet breaks were counted as “unaccounted activity”.

Following backlash when the news initially broke about the Sapience software, Barclays axed the system. Barclays had used similar software in 2017 to monitor how long employees were at their desk, but this was scrapped quite quickly too.

What's the big picture effect?

This story raises a number of issues, particularly concerning employee wellbeing and privacy.

The first issue with this system is the potential stress on employees, owing to the discouragement of breaks. A whistleblower at Barclays told City A.M. that the system was proving stressful and that it “shows an utter disregard for employee wellbeing”. Regarding breaks, “employees are worried to […] have full lunch breaks, take bathroom breaks or even get up for water as we are not aware of the repercussions this might have on our statistics”.

In a time where employee wellbeing and mental health is regarded as increasingly important, such pressure on employees is difficult to justify. Small breaks away from work can be useful for productivity and prevention of employee burnout, and therefore should not necessarily be punished. This has highlighted an issue with transparency, as employees were unaware of the consequences of being away from their desk for too long.

The software can also be seen as a breach of privacy, as both work and non-work related activity was constantly monitored. Privacy International confirmed that “data protection rules are very clear, strict and do not allow employers to carry out such monitoring unless they are able to prove that this is strictly necessary and proportionate and it does not severely impact employees’ rights”. Privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch highlighted that such behaviour from a manager in person, such as looking over employees’ shoulders and personally logging breaks, would not be considered acceptable behaviour. Therefore, technology should not be acting as a mask for such behaviour that is otherwise unacceptable or which constitutes an invasion of privacy and employee rights.

The removal of this software evidences the lack of support the system had amongst employees and the relevant privacy groups. This story highlights that there is often an increase in the use of technology, without understanding the consequences of it yet.

Report written by Harina Chandhok

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