Ring my bell

Out of sight is most definitely not out of mind when the line manager or boss is worried their roving employee is not doing their job properly. Was he really in Leeds today, or was he that fuzzy shape I thought I spotted on the TV coverage of the cricket? Nic Paton investigates the merits of mobile phone tracking

There are an estimated 4.8 million mobile workers in the UK, and the figure continues to rise (it was around 2.3 million just four years ago), as working environments become ever more mobile and spread out.

In the past, almost the only option open to a manager was the somewhat embarrassing one of ringing up the client to check their worker had indeed been to see them. Now, however, more and more firms are turning to technology that allows them to track the location of their employees’ mobile phone.

Putting the technology in place need not cost the earth, says Jon Magnusson, managing director of Mobile Locate, one firm that offers this service.

Basic packages start at £100 for up to five mobiles, followed by a further £1 per month per mobile, he says.

“It is becoming something that employers are becoming aware of and are adopting. But you do need to have the proper authorisation of the person who is in possession of the phone,” he warns.

But for HR professionals, if not handled sensitively, the cost issue is far less than that of the technology and much more the potential cost of lost trust, damaged motivation and even legal damages.

Monitoring is a very sensitive area legally and firms do have to tread carefully, argues Warren Wayne, partner at law firm Bird & Bird.

“If they start listening into calls, it can be horrendous because it is a criminal offence unless they have permission, and how do you get permission from the person who has phoned up?”

Simply monitoring an employee’s location, however, should be less problematic. Employers are entitled to know where an employee is and if they are doing as instructed.

The problem comes if the monitoring spills over into what is nominally private time and whether it starts to become intrusive.

There are also questions of who is going to be party to the data collected – ideally, only the line manager and IT person running it – where is it going to be stored and what is the company going to do with it?

“It may be more effective to tell people that you have the ability to check up on them if it is felt that they are not carrying out their work properly. It should perhaps be used as an adjunct to the performance monitoring procedures that are already there,” Wayne suggests.

In practical terms, the key is to have a clear policy in place, and to have communicated it effectively both to line managers and employees, stresses Ben Willmott, adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

“If employers are going to monitor staff in anyway, they need to be very clear to employees as to why they are doing it, and how and when it is being carried out,” he suggests.

Explained correctly, monitoring may even be something employees welcome, he adds.

“For people who are working alone, such as social workers or estate agents, the fact their employer knows where they are can be a good thing from a security or personal safety perspective,” he says.

But when workers feel they are being watched unduly, it almost inevitably has a detrimental impact on their commitment and motivation, their trust in the organisation and the likelihood that they will move on sooner rather than later.

“The negatives outweigh the positives unless the employees are happy with the arrangement. There can be a perception that employers are acting like Big Brother,” Willmott warns.

Of course, employees do have another option if they really want to disappear – switch the phone off. But whether that’s likely to bring them even more attention back at HQ than leaving it on is, of course, another matter.

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