Big Brother is Watching: The Rise of Productivity Surveillance of Remote Workers

Companies have been tracking everything from keystrokes to bathroom breaks

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Productivity equals profit. So it’s no surprise that, especially when business is worse than ever for a lot of companies, surveillance technology sales have surged this year. Hubstaff, a US-based tracking software company, reported that its number of UK customers alone is up four times year-on-year since February. Another tracking software company, Sleek, told BBC News it had seen a five-fold increase in its number of users during lockdown, taking the firm to almost 20,000 in total.

Working from home has meant that, unlike before, employees are out of sight of their managers and fellow workmates. Many bosses seem to believe that employees working from home are likely to slack off, tossing their responsibilities aside for an extra episode of Netflix or a game of Fortnite. Maybe they’ll give their mouse a little shake so they don’t appear offline on Slack or Microsoft Teams. Either way, they’re not doing work. 

Despite this fear being somewhat baseless in most cases – earlier this year, Hubble HQ found that 24% of employees felt much more productive at home compared, with 7.5% in the office and another study found that remote workers are 35-40% more productive than office workers – bosses are taking it upon themselves to crack down on employees by monitoring their screens with tracking software known as bossware. 


Bossware Explained

Bossware essentially tracks what employees are up to on their work laptops or mobile phones by taking screenshots or screen recordings, keylogging (tracking every key pressed by a user), activity monitoring of certain apps or websites, or even accessing a device’s microphone or webcam

Lewis*, an IT technician from the UK told PC Guide that, while he’s never been asked to do it himself, he knows his company is able to monitor what employees get up to in the office if they want to. Particularly, they are able to see when someone is using a non-company site like Facebook or YouTube and can track their usage from there. 

When Lewis was an apprentice in his company, he realized his activity had been monitored. “It was a bit strange and I didn’t really expect them to do it,” he told me. “But, to be fair, they were just making sure I wasn’t on anything I shouldn’t be.

“We’re allowed to use Spotify and YouTube, and really any website on the network, so they were probably just checking that.” 

When I asked how he’d feel if he was asked to monitor another employee’s screen, Lewis said he wouldn’t feel very comfortable doing it, “unless I had a reason.”

When you think about it logically, checking to see if an 18-year-old apprentice is actually doing their work rather than slacking off on social media is understandable, from a business perspective. You’re at work to work and you shouldn’t really have anything to hide anyway. But when it comes to employee surveillance, especially in their own homes, it’s not so clear cut. 


What Are the Problems?

“Many of these employee monitoring software applications go far beyond what is necessary to keep employees productive, and can indeed become disturbingly intrusive and extend their reach into employees’ private lives,” Attila Tomaschek, Digital Privacy Expert at ProPrivacy says. On top of keylogging and activity monitoring, bossware can access employee’s emails and other private messages, and even use facial recognition technology to detect their moods at any given time, Tomaschek tells me.

“If any of this seems excessive,” he says, “it’s because it most certainly is.”

Being able to access everything an employee sees or does on their work-issued devices means employers could accidentally see sensitive information like usernames and passwords for personal accounts, or private and privileged conversations through their email or instant messaging services. 

As Tomaschek points out, while employers might be able to rationalize their tracking methods by comparing it to the office environment (where management is able to check in on workers at any given time), “accessing their webcams, using facial recognition or requiring that they remain on a live video conference for the entire workday is really overstretching employer authority,” especially when the lines between home and work have become increasingly blurry. 

Even when employees disagree with their company’s surveillance practices, there’s often little they can do. Sebastian Mattern, the director of Tiger HR, says, “legally, there’s nothing that prevents an employer from monitoring staff,” but there are some things employers need to keep in mind. 

First of all, employees need to be aware of what is monitored and how. Employers need to make sure they consult workers before implementing bossware and it needs to be written policy. Also, in the case that bossware tracks and stores any personal data, GDPR laws might well apply. Finally, Mattern tells PC Guide, employers are only allowed to undertake covert monitoring or recording where there is a genuine reason to believe misconduct, malpractice or criminal activity is taking place.

Tomaschek believes these laws are extremely lacking, leaving employees with no protection from their employers invading their privacy. As the shift to remote work becomes a permanent feature of working life, Tomaschek says, a set of laws that adequately keeps pace with the rapidly evolving remote work environment will be essential.

That being said, using bossware is much more simple in theory. Mattern says: “No matter how much consulting and no matter how good a policy is, each employer has to balance the impact of such a policy on employees’ happiness and therefore their productivity.”


How Do Workers Feel?

Rachel Beech is a full-time businesswoman who was home-schooling her nine-year-old child throughout lockdown. While she’s lucky enough to be her own boss, she despairs at the thought of being tracked by upper management if she was working for a company. Throughout lockdown, she said, home-schooling and child care were the biggest drain on her productivity “I found that I could usually keep one eye on my emails and get smaller jobs done, but anything that required significant brain power had to wait until later in the evening,” she told PC Guide.

She adds: “Now that children are back at school, parents can be more productive. However, school days are still much shorter than the working day, and, while the school run itself is only a brief break from your desk, once you return you have a child to care for, so jumping straight back into your work is not really an option.”

She isn’t against tracking productivity. In fact, she thinks it would be helpful. But she doesn’t think that tracking an employee’s computer is the way to go about it. “It would certainly put unnecessary additional pressure on parents with a lot to juggle,” she says. “I believe that productivity should be measured on achievement and output, not keystrokes.”

Carol* has been monitored in her job since before the pandemic but, since the lockdown, she feels the level of monitoring has been excessive: “At first we were required to have 3 team meetings a day.” She said this level of monitoring has added an unnecessary level of stress to her workday, especially during lockdown, where it is compounded with the stress of living through a global crisis.

Carol tells PC Guide that her refreshment times are monitored, meaning even taking comfort breaks can be difficult. “It’s just not a fair way to treat your staff,” she says.

Emily has been working remotely since March. Her work is monitored through a browser add-on. The problem, she tells me, “is that not everything I do is through the browser; sometimes I prefer to disconnect from the internet and write an article.”

This is an issue because the hours she spends working offline aren’t tracked, “and in theory cannot be billed for.” Fortunately for Emily, she has an understanding manager who allows her to track her time manually (although that can be distracting in itself), but she does note that, if they didn’t trust each other, “it could be problematic.”

While most workers understand a level of necessity when it comes to tracking their productivity, it seems fairly unreasonable to expect all employees to be on top form in the middle of a pandemic. The shift to remote work was definitely unprecedented and businesses need to find their feet, but that shouldn’t come at the expense of employees’ mental wellbeing, especially if they’re meeting their targets. Like Rachel said, “If a job is being done on time, to a high standard and neither customer satisfaction nor team relationships are compromised, the hours of a working day should be determined by the individual when working at home.”

*Some names have been changed to protect anonymity