Wednesday 19 February 2020 9:05 pm

Exclusive: Barclays installs Big Brother-style spyware on employees' computers

Barclays has been criticised by HR experts and privacy campaigners after the bank installed “Big Brother” employee monitoring software in its London headquarters.

Introduced as a pilot last week, the technology monitors Barclays workers’ activity on their computers, and in some instances admonishes staff in daily updates to them if they are not deemed to have been active enough — which is described as being in “the zone”.

The system tells staff to “avoid breaks” as it monitors their productivity in real-time, and records activities such as toilet visits as “unaccounted activity”.

A whistleblower at the banking giant told City A.M. that “the stress this is causing is beyond belief” and that it “shows an utter disregard for employee wellbeing”.

“Employees are worried to step away from their desks, 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,” they added.

Big Brother Watch, a privacy campaign group, described the technology as “creepy”.

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The software, provided by Sapience, has been rolled out throughout the product control department within the investment bank division at the firm’s Canary Wharf headquarters.

Sapience describes the system as offering “automated work pattern reporting and real-time analytics” and “unprecedented visibility into how people work, with actionable insights to better manage cost and performance across teams.”

The software compiles a report into an employees’ activity during the working day. A “work yoga” assessment sent to a Barclays employee earlier this week, seen by City A.M., warned the staffer of “not enough time in the Zone yesterday!”

It added: “Tips: mute the phone, disable email/chat pop-ups, avoid breaks for 20+ minutes, 2–3 times a day.”

The whistleblower described the rollout as turning the office into a “Big Brother state”.

The controversial new software comes as the investment bank arm, of which the product control department is a part, reported increased profit at the end of 2019.

The use of such software is becoming more widespread in the industry, but Ed Houghton, head of research at the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development, warned the technology could never be a “substitute for good line management”.

“Employees shouldn’t feel they’re not trusted to use their time effectively or that they’re not trusted to be productive,” he added.

Barclays’ product control function is tasked with compiling profit and loss accounts on the trading floor’s activities as well as communicating information with the rest of the bank and regulators. 

This is not the first time Barclays has been accused of invading the privacy of employees. In 2017 the firm was criticised for the use of OccupEye sensors which monitored how long employees were spending at their desks. A similar system was used at the Telegraph newspaper, but was removed after just a day following a backlash from employees.

Silkie Carlo, director of Big Brother Watch, said: “Managers would never get away with breathing down employee’s necks, personally monitoring their screens or logging toilet and water breaks. The availability of technology to surveil staff surreptitiously does not make it any more acceptable.”

“The use of this technology is creepy and should be urgently reviewed,” she added. 

A spokesperson for Barclays confirmed it had introduced the monitoring software, and said “This type of technology is widely used across the industry to help identify what is working well and opportunities to improve processes.  Colleague wellbeing is of paramount importance and colleagues are free to take breaks whenever they choose.”

They added the bank will listen carefully to any feedback resulting from the pilot.

Sapience did not respond to requests for comment.