Webcams are making headway in the workplace and not just for video conference calls. Companies are using the tiny cameras linked to desktop PCs or built into new laptops and flat panel monitors to screen job applicants, conduct virtual classes, and in some instances, monitor employees. Using webcams to check up on workers is within companies’ legal rights, to a degree. If you do, lawyers and workers’ rights advocates suggest creating monitoring policies and making sure workers know about them.
Lower prices have made webcams affordable even for small businesses, and are causing a boom in the market. Worldwide sales of webcams are expected to reach $6.2 billion in 2013 from $1.2 billion in 2006, according to a 2007 report from WinterGreen Research, a British technology market researcher. At an average of $30 to $120 a pop for a stand-alone unit, that’s a lot of webcams.
Price isn’t the only reason sales are up. Image capture, picture quality, sound, and software all are better than they used to be. High-end devices from Logitech, for example, record images at 30 frames per second and pictures can be enlarged to fill up an entire computer screen without getting blurry, says company spokeswoman Ha Thai. Equipment from vendors such as Logitech, Creative Labs, andAxis Technology can be used with Skype and other major instant messaging and voice-over-Internet-protocol (VoIP) programs for video chat.
Not just for videoconferencing anymore
Technological advances have led to companies to use Webcams for:
Conference calls — Webcams can replace expensive stand-alone videoconferencing equipment. A webcam with free Skype or other VoIP system can do the same thing for hundreds of dollars instead of thousands, according to Thai, with Logitech.
Screening job applicants — Companies are using webcams to pre-screen job candidates in a different town or state. Seeing someone on a video phone call could predict how they’d present themselves on a sales call or “how they will represent your department in front of others,” says Bruce Kane, a Charlotte, N.C., professional and technology services consultant. John Hattery, a global supply chain and operations consultant with Hattery Associates in Cleveland, Ohio, once helped an executive recruiter put together a webcam-based system for interviewing prospective clients. For the recruiter, it was “cheaper just to purchase prospective candidates USB cameras rather than rent videoconference time, particularly for candidates where rental suites weren’t readily available,” Hattery says.
Online learning — Companies can set up virtual classrooms for training and other online learning by combining webcams, VoIP connections, and software-as-a-service programs such as Genesys Meeting Center from Genesys Conferencing, which charges for virtual classroom space by the minute.
Website content — Companies can use webcams to record podcasts or short video clips for their websites or corporate blogs.
Employee monitoring: proceed with caution
Along with counting keystrokes and reading e-mail, companies are using webcams to keep tabs on employees. Federal and state privacy laws prohibit companies from setting up cameras to spy on employees in bathrooms, locker rooms or other changing areas. Apart from that, employees do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy at work, according to lawyers and workplace rights advocates.
Still, if companies are using webcams to monitor workers, they shouldn’t be heavy handed. “I could imagine scenarios where your boss might be concerned about what you’re doing” in your office with the door closed, says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a Princeton, N.J. workers’ rights advocate. “But what’s wrong with knocking? If someone’s taking three-hour naps, you could find out without having to spy on them.”
To forestall misunderstandings or bad feelings, companies should put webcam monitoring policies in writing and make sure employees know about them. Employees “have to know that it’s a place of business not their home,” says Helene Wasserman, a labor attorney with Ford & Harrison LLP,
in Los Angeles, who works exclusively with corporate clients. Employees have to know that “if there are video cameras you’ll be on them. If companies elect to monitor computers and website, know that your footsteps on the net will be watched.”