Being monitored by your boss while working from home — necessary trade-off or ‘stupid’ surveillance?
How’s your boss keeping tabs on your work?
Before the pandemic they might have popped their head over the partition or caught up over coffee.
But with many people working from home, some companies are using time tracking software or surveillance technology to check in on what workers are doing.
How does it work?
Most of the software on the market can take screenshots of what’s on a worker’s computer (sometimes in real-time). Some also offer keystroke logging (what you type), and GPS tracking.
Elizabeth Lyons, who studies technology and management at the University of California San Diego, says it’s tracking pretty much anything an employee’s doing in work hours.
“The things employers are really looking for is what websites are employees on, are these productive or unproductive websites, what apps are they using, how much time are they spending on their different tasks,” Dr Lyons .
“Increasingly I’ve been seeing software that is using machine learning techniques to try to predict what types of activities are associated with higher productivity, what time of day employees are more productive, what kind of breaks might help employees become more productive.”
Jathan Sadowski, from Monash University’s Emerging Technologies Research Lab, says tracking workers and their efficiency isn’t new.
“But what we see right now is the technologies and the abilities are now available to really supercharge this kind of surveillance and discipline and monitoring to increasingly higher levels,” Dr Sadowski says.
‘It doesn’t capture the full picture’
Candice works as a digital marketer for a podcast supporting students undertaking English language tests.
The team’s spread out over different countries and the company uses tracking software.
But she says she doesn’t have a problem with it.
“I think you have to put a lot of trust in someone that is working remotely because [my boss] has no idea of what I’m doing all day long,” Candice says.
“It also keeps me on track … I can see exactly how much time I’ve spent doing work, because it’s so easy to decide to wake up at 10:00 in the morning and then by 2:00 in the afternoon you feel tired and you think, ‘Oh well, I’ve done a lot today’.”
Her boss, Ben Worthington, says the technology isn’t perfect.
“If one of my team members pulls away from the laptop and just starts jotting ideas down or whatever, then the software obviously doesn’t capture that,” he says.
“So it doesn’t capture the full picture … but it gives you a good guideline.”
He says maintaining a good relationship with his team — through things like weekly catch up meetings — can almost replace the tech.
“[The software’s] definitely useful but it’s not the single tool for working remotely, there is quite a lot of other components.”
‘Machinelike, without human flaws’
It’s not just desk-bound workers being tracked.
When she’s not studying Emma works in the warehouse of a clothing company.
Everyone working in the warehouse is tracked. If they’re falling behind a supervisor will review their stats with them.
“In order to get shifts we have to keep a certain average of productivity,” Emma says.
She says she liked trying to improve on her performance and that the company would ask for ideas on how to become more efficient.
Emma is shorter so more stepladders were added.
Her bosses realised that people listening to music were faster because they didn’t talk. So a new rule was added — everyone has to have headphones on, or not talk.
“It was all kind of: how can we make this the most machinelike, without human flaws,” Emma says.
Lauren Kate Kelly from the United Workers Union says people need to look past the technology and see what surveillance is doing to the power imbalance between companies and their staff.
“It’s corrosive. Particularly in the context of insecure forms of work, which is where it really takes root.”
She says a person run off their feet and being tracked by a scanner in a warehouse probably doesn’t have the job security to speak up and raise any issues.
“The most egregious forms of workplace surveillance and discipline of workers takes place in a context where people don’t have a lot of power, where workers don’t have basic rights and conditions that are associated with having a permanent or a secure job,” she says.
“Some of this new tech, it’s seen as being very shiny and a silver bullet that can fix all workplace problems. Fundamentally, firms they need to think about what creates value, and skilled workers and happy workers create value.”
Some fear that while this tracking technology has quickly advanced, the law has been left behind.
There’s no general right to privacy in Australia. Instead there’s a complicated web of federal, state and territory laws.
Patrick Turner from Maurice Blackburn Lawyers says those laws aren’t consistent, and need to change.
“With people working from home due to COVID-19, certainly anecdotally there appears to be a great number of employers who are increasingly looking to use technology to scrutinise employees and to deploy surveillance which is reaching into the home,” he says.
“There is a whole range of information that employers may be gathering on employees in an area of their life where otherwise their employer would not have any scrutiny.
“So we need to be really careful about making sure that people are protected in the home, but also in other facets of their life where their personal information is being gathered.”
Connections, trust & motivation
Paul Zac studies neuroeconomics — looking at how people think and how that affects business and economics.
He says the idea that this technology is a trade-off for people who get to work from home is “stupid”.
“You’re not hiring the right people, if you’ve got to do that kind of surveillance,” Dr Zac says.
He says more important is having social and emotional check-ins with staff through regular chats and getting everyone onboard as a team.
“It’s not surveillance. It’s really asking people if they’ll put their passion, their energy into moving the organisation’s goals forward. And to do that, you’ve got to be part of a trusted team.”
Tyler Sellhorn works for the tracking program Hubstaff, which offers GPS tracking, monitors websites employees visit, and can capture screenshots of their computers every few minutes.
He says it’s not surveillance.
“If you want to purchase a surveillance product, that’s available to you, and Hubstaff isn’t that,” he says.
“The world is going to remote, so how can we do that in a way that does have an opportunity for people to ‘move the sliders of trust’ towards one another.”
Mr Sellhorn says the software enables both the employers and employees to have the “transparency, access and control” that’s needed for them to work without supervision.
“The thing that I would encourage you to be thinking about is that it’s going to amplify whatever kind of management you already have inside of your company.”
The right balance
Dr Lyons says with any worker monitoring, bosses need to be careful to strike the right balance.
A study she conducted found people doing data collection work out of the office were more productive when they were made aware they were being monitored, compared to their colleagues who weren’t told they were being tracked.
“We think, based on survey measures, that this was because it increased worker satisfaction.”
She believes the workers who weren’t told they were being tracked may have felt like they were less important to their managers.
“Where you’re not having regular interaction with your manager, or even with your colleagues, some signal that your performance is integrated into the organisation seems important.”
But she warns in other studies workers have interpreted too much monitoring as their boss not trusting them, while in others employees felt less motivated.
“They said, ‘if the manager is going to watch everything I do, then I’m not going to do anything above and beyond what they expect of me’,” she says.
“Striking this balance seems really important and actually quite hard.”