The work culture in South Africa has seen a big shift in the way it operates following the many months of lockdown imposed by Government in its attempts to curb the spread of Covid.   Working from home has proved to be an essential enabler of business and in sustaining some semblance of economic stability during lockdown – and may very well continue to be so, especially now that it’s been proven to be possible, and successful. 

Whilst working from home has been a much-talked-about option over the years, employers have been reluctant to engage flexible employment – whether it has been a trust issue, a lack of processes to monitor work output or simply just not the company ethos, 2020 has heralded in a work force managing actually rather well from home, given the circumstances.   They are meeting budgets, hitting deadlines, exceeding expectations, improving productivity and maximsing on time management – an employer’s dream, no,   but how does an employer go about tracking their staff’s productivity, and how legal is it?   

There are several work-from-home monitoring tools and surveillance apps that track and monitor how much time a remote worker spends on a specific task or site.  This ‘big brother’ approach has raised some privacy concerns and questions as to whether it is legal or appropriate.  “The short answer is yes, if done correctly and with the employee’s consent,” says PJ Veldhuizen, MD of Gillan & Veldhuzien Inc.  Whether it is appropriate or not is up for debate though, he adds.    

From an employer’s perspective there are several reasons for adopting this approach – the most obvious being to monitor staff productivity and to make sure workers are doing what they’re supposed to be doing.  The less apparent reasons would be for employers to protect themselves against possible lawsuits, to maintain the integrity of hardware and software from malicious cyber-activity, and to protect intellectual property, such as trade secrets or client lists.

Another factor to consider is that if the equipment belongs to the employee, then the employer cannot access information on that equipment without an agreement or court order.  However, if data is transmitted via the company network, the employer may have access to – and therefore be able to review – any and all information with the appropriate policies in place.   “The fact is most employers can legally monitor what you do while working as long as it’s for legitimate business purposes or they have your consent. If you decide to engage in personal activities during business hours, you will usually do so at your own risk,” says Veldhuizen.

The days ahead remain somewhat unclear but the fact of the matter is that adjustments in how companies need to operate are a reality and whilst some businesses will go back to business as usual, others will have to adopt and adapt to a new way of doing things.   

Working remotely will require some adjustments to exisiting and new contracts that clearly define the expectations and responsibilities for employees who work from home;  contracts that legally, effectively and productively accommodate what will inevitably be the ‘new norm’ when it comes to the corporate work environment.