Corporate snitches are using screen monitoring to find and fire slackers

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Robert* works at a medium-sized tech firm in the US. During the pandemic, he’s been tasked with snooping on errant employees via monitoring technology. “We just use it to make sure people are doing their jobs. In one case, we discovered an employee who, while ‘working from home,’ logged in at 9am, wrote one email, then another at 5pm, and did nothing in between.” He explains that he was delegated the task of “auditing” the employee’s logins. “We suspected as much, but the software allowed us to provide evidence for that person’s dismissal.”
As coronavirus lays waste to workplaces around the world, surveillance software has flourished: programs such as ActivTrak, Time Doctor, Teramind and Hubstaff have all reported a post-lockdown sales surge. Once installed, they offer an array of covert monitoring tools, with managers able to view screenshots, login times and keystrokes at will to ensure employees remain on track working remotely. Although marketed as productivity software, the technology – dubbed as ‘bossware’ for its secrecy and invasiveness – has led to many workers finding creative ways of evading its omniscient gaze.

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Like Robert, Josh feels that surveillance programs contribute to an efficient working environment. He works for an American health insurance firm which employs seasonal workers. Spying is part of the day job. “It’s very sensitive healthcare work,” he says. Monitoring comes in the form of recording employee’s screenshots and keystrokes. “Surveillance software is absolutely critical to limiting what people can do, and prevent things like identity theft. Everyone is shown the technology when they start, so there’s transparency.”
According to independent business psychologist Alan Bradshaw, Robert and Josh are a rare breed: the vast majority of people would squirm at the thought of actively snooping on colleagues’ output and metrics. Furthermore, he says, such policies create a culture of paranoia, completely destroying trust within an organisation. “Clients I work with would find the idea of surveillance extremely uncomfortable – it would go against their own values. Fundamentally, it comes down to their view on human nature. If it’s generally one of mistrust, and that their colleagues ‘slack,’ then they would be fine exposing that behaviour via covert monitoring.”
Matthew’s digital marketing firm has previously used Sneek: an always-on video conference service with the function to automatically snap employees through their webcams as they work from home. The result is a wall of faces staring at their screens – click on a colleague, and you’re in a live video call. However, Matthew distances himself from the program, which has come under fire during lockdown for being potentially invasive. “We haven’t used it in several years. I remember it being a useful piece of software for us when we were a smaller team.”
Sneek can be used as a substitute for the office: a quick, digital tap on a colleague’s shoulder. The idea of such a program, or indeed bossware, being used to monitor employees knots Matthew’s gut. “I just wouldn’t feel comfortable looking and trying to figure out if a team member isn’t staying on track,” he says. “Our thesis is the opposite of being Big Brother and tracking people’s output.”

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Most employees forced to surveil their peers would feel dread. And the impact would be accumulative, devastating and long lasting – the reluctant spy would be trapped in a tight psychological bind. “It would place a very significant mental toll on them,” Bradhsaw says. “It’s a chronic stress scenario: the cognitive dissonance and internal discomfort, when you’re constantly feeling very uncomfortable with what you’re doing, would have a hugely negative effect on health and wellbeing over time.”
Instead, workplace surveillance is fast becoming automated. In February, Barclays scrapped tracking software which sent automated warnings to workers for spending too long on breaks. Alexandra Mateescu, of technology think tank Data & Society, believes such monitoring could grow given the increasingly unstable boundary between office and home. “It only works with pervasive surveillance and data collection. But with many working more flexible hours as a result of coronavirus, the question becomes when does the employer’s right to track you actually end?”
Workplace surveillance is nothing new. It’s been around for centuries – ever since bosses first supervised workers on the factory floor. And in some modern day industries, employee monitoring is simply non-negotiable: from meeting financial compliance regulations to recording CCTV on shop floors. In fact, Bradshaw says that managing a team in a workplace, checking in on colleagues and their progress once in a while, is a form of healthy monitoring in itself – it’s core to a functioning business.
However, that everyday, low-key tracking has now been killed by the pandemic. “Employers are now not seeing people on a daily basis with informal meetings and opportunities to chat,” Bradshaw says. “How do you replicate that? It’s a huge challenge. It’s gone from leading a team in an office to managing a group of individuals juggling their home and work lives. Many have struggled.” It’s seemingly in these gaps that new, more insidious forms of monitoring are emerging.

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Ben is a developer. He may not have any bossware programs installed on his work laptop, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t feel like he’s being watched whenever he’s on the company clock. “I think all of the video chat meetings being scheduled is basically the same thing as spying. They’re there to make sure I’m doing my work, or at least thinking about work.” He explains that his company uses project tracking application Jira. “It’s really quite bad: we’re judged by results and how many tasks we bang out, yet then our managers will stuff our calendars full of meetings.”
Unable to look up from their screens and see their team, nor quickly lean over someone’s desk, there’s a temptation for bosses to unintentionally stray into passively tracking their colleagues’ productivity as they work from home, via excessive video meetings, perma-active Slack statuses and round-the-clock emails; their team may not be physically present, but at least they’re always connected.
Meanwhile, time-tracking programs such as Gusto and Harvest, both used in Matthew’s business, are utilised when projects are counted by the hour. It’s another form of monitoring productivity. “I don’t find it awkward as we don’t have to use it that often – it’s not a big part of our tech stack,” Matthew says. “We’re not big micro-managers. We could be like that: in [project management tool] Basecamp you can see people’s output and productivity at a pretty granular level. But our goal is performance based.”
Bradshaw highlights that many managers have struggled with having less control in the office-free world. “The process of managing people and their environments has drastically changed. Many like working closely with their teams and that’s been disrupted.”
So, is the answer monitoring technology? “They’ll need to turn to other data sources,” Bradshaw explains. “But doing that in terms of ‘me monitoring you’ is a recipe for psychological discomfort in any company. Any monitoring has to be fully negotiable and transparent, so it becomes ‘us monitoring each other.’”
Not all monitoring of colleagues, by colleagues, is necessarily nefarious. In fact, when the technology is utilised to gently check in on another’s day, it can bring huge benefits. “We’ve been encouraged to interact with each other in a non-work way,” says Lucy, a utilities manager. “It’s nice to feel our bosses legitimately care about us. I randomly organise social hours through Zoom and Microsoft Teams to check in and see how we’re all doing. It’s made everyone feel less isolated – it’s the best form of workplace monitoring.”
*Names have been changed
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