As remote working becomes more common, especially among knowledge workers who sit at computers all day, companies are seeking new ways to keep track of these workers.
New technology, colloquially known as ‘bossware,’ allows supervisors to keep tabs on their workers, ensuring that they are putting in the required hours and remaining productive. However, many workers, as well as privacy and civil rights advocates, see bossware as invasive and unwarranted surveillance and have taken steps to thwart it.
With remote working on the rise, some employers have turned to hardware and software solutions to replace in-person supervisors. According to reporting in the Wall Street Journal, almost two-thirds of American companies with over 1000 employees have introduced some form of worker surveillance.
Common bossware options include keyloggers or mouse-tracking software that tracks when workers are active on their computers. Some employers also require webcams to be on during the day, or they monitor away status in chat apps. Others take regular remote screenshots of employee computer screens, monitor which applications and websites an employee uses, or track who workers contact via email or chat programs.
As the WSJ notes,
“This technological shift is particularly jarring for white-collar workers who have tended to have greater leeway in their work practices than blue-collar workers who have to punch time clocks.”
Making matters worse, most of the surveillance is run by artificial intelligence.
“Employers do have a legitimate interest in monitoring their employees’ work to ensure that they’re productive and efficient,” Jay Stanley, a senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union, tells Slate. However, it’s the AI component that complicates matters and makes the data suspect. As Stanley notes, “AI logic can be opaque. So people are being judged by algorithms.” An AI system, in other words, might record that a worker is not currently typing, but it can’t characterize what that person might actually be doing. Maybe they’re doing research, answering a colleague’s question on Slack, or thinking up a solution to a problem, rather than goofing off. While humans can make these distinctions, AI systems cannot.
Furthermore, as a Microsoft spokesperson told the WSJ, online activity doesn’t necessarily equate to productivity and points out that “organizations should be careful about tracking the wrong kinds of things in order to assess employee performance.” The amount of time that workers spend in front of their computers, or the number of emails they send, does not correlate with their job performance.
Having said all that, it’s worth asking if remote worker productivity is even an issue. Forbes notes that the panic that stay-at-home workers would slack off appears to be unfounded. According to research conducted in 2020 by Mercer, an HR Benefits and Consulting firm, almost all (94%) of the almost 800 companies surveyed said that they did not see a reduction in productivity—or it had actually improved.
Not only may remote worker surveillance be unnecessary, it may actually be counter-productive, leading to lower morale and higher turnover. Organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Center for Democracy and Technology claim that this kind of workplace spyware is invasive and unhealthy, leading to unnecessary fatigue and repetitive motion injuries.
The WSJ quotes two 2020 studies that pointed to the detrimental effects of workplace surveillance. In one survey of 2,100 call center workers, research determined that tracking employees led to lower job satisfaction, which in turn led to higher absenteeism and turnover. Meanwhile, in a survey of 2000 members of the UK’s Trade Union Council, more than half of the respondents stated that bossware systems had undermined the trust between workers and management.
Meanwhile, the US National Labor Review Board wants to review worker surveillance practices, claiming that they may be violating worker rights. Jennifer Abruzzo, general counsel at the NLRB, intends to urge the organization “to protect employees, to the greatest extent possible, from intrusive or abusive electronic monitoring and automated management practices.”
As she states in an October 2022 memo,
“Close, constant surveillance and management through electronic means threaten employees’ basic ability to exercise their rights.”
And the courts are starting to pay attention as well. A remote worker in the Netherlands refused to keep his webcam running. His company, the US-based IT company Chetu, fired him, but as the BBC reports, a Dutch court ruled that his rights had been violated and ordered the company to pay 75,000 euros.
Regardless of political and legal challenges, it seems workers may have the last laugh. Some are turning to hardware and software that helps evade some of the data captures. For example, entrepreneurs have designed creative solutions to some of the surveillance tactics, including fashioning automated mouse movers to mimic online activity. VICE describes how individuals have made primitive mouse movers from LEGOS while others are distributing software on USB drives that tell the computer that the mouse is moving. And as surveillance continues to expand, so too will worker responses to the problem.
What the future holds for these practices is anyone’s guess. Watch this space for more on the subject of remote worker surveillance and bossware, as it’s likely to become a bigger story in 2023.