How Employers Could Be Spying On You While Working From Home – CNBC

Some managers and CEOs are turning to “productivity management” software to track their employees while they work from home. How do systems like this affect employees? And are there limits to the ways in which employers can track their workers in pursuit of productivity?

According to a new survey, 77% of workers want to continue to work from home at least once a week when the coronavirus pandemic is over.

“The Coronavirus Pandemic has accelerated the global embrace of remote by at least 10 years. So you have tens of millions of people now that are suddenly remote. many of whom are doing this for the first time, it’s a new experience for many employers too.” – Darren Murph, Head Of Remote, GitLab

“For some people, there’s a real fear of if you send all of your employees to work from home, won’t they just watch Netflix, play video games, not get dressed and you’ll still be paying them.” – Jamie Woodcock, Senior Lecturer, People and Organisations, The Open University

So some employers are turning to productivity management software or other kinds of surveillance to attract their employees while they work from home. As a result, employee tracking software has seen a significant spike in recent months.

The Rise Of Employee Surveillance Software

Is This New?

The idea of being tracked at work isn’t anything new.

“We sign off a lot of our rights when we go to work for someone and you know it’s in that big pile of paper that you get on your first day.” – Kate Lister, President, Global Workplace Analytics

“In many ways surveillance work goes back as far as work does. Employers have an interest in trying to understand what people are doing when they’re paying for them to be at work.” – Jamie Woodcock, Senior Lecturer, People and Organisations, The Open University

“Anyone who works in IT can tell you that if you are in fact working in the employers place of business using employer-provided laptops or other computer equipment, and, you are transmitting information across employer owned networks, you are absolutely being monitored in surveil.” – Stacy Hawkins, Professor Of Law, Rutgers Law School

“Many of these kind of monitoring processes have already been experimented on what people consider to be low skilled workers. In the UK, for example, it’s been very common to have biometric scanners for cleaners, to know how long they’ve been in a room for, and how quickly things have been done and so on. Lot of these technologies have been introduced already, and now they’re starting to kind of flow up the chain of the workforce and be used elsewhere. And I think the shifts are working from home means that many of those forms of surveillance which perhaps we have taken for granted while we’re at work and now reaching into our homes.” – Jamie Woodcock, Senior Lecturer, People and Organisations, The Open University

How Does It Work?

Many companies that existed pre-pandemic have already developed software to track employees in a variety of ways. There’s Prodoscore, HubStaff, InterGuard, Time Doctor, TeraMind, VeriClock, TransparentBusiness and many others. Prodoscore alone has seen a 600 percent uptick in interest from prospective customers since COVID-19.

Recently CNBC’s Eric chemi spoke with its CEO, Sam Naficy

“We take a number of data points, be it a CRM tool that they’re currently using, a phone system like a LAN edge, and email system it could be G suite or Microsoft 365. We aggregate all those data points in a real-time proprietary dashboard that provides them a weighted score, we record and transcribe all your phone calls. It’s transcribed, all of it is recorded. We use AI tools to massage that into a real-time score that you see as does your boss and the CEO and the VP of Sales and the chief revenue officer. Everyone is seeing the productivity. Every morning you come to your desk, you have an email from us. You have your productivity score, your prodo scores on the first line of the email, your score yesterday for prodo score was 74 your colleagues were 90, they’ve done more. And it’s a tool that you could gauge yourself against your peers.” – Sam Naficy, CEO Prodoscore

Another company working in the same space is TransparentBusiness which takes a different approach but has seen a 500% spike in users month to months since COVID 19. TransparentBusiness is different from Prodoscore in that it doesn’t track anything until workers manually clock in, but it records those exact times and uploads a stream of desktop screenshots to your manager when you are clocked in. You do have the ability to delete those screenshots after the fact or clock out and stop them entirely.

“Our technology allows for the monitoring and tracking of the work that the user reports as work done. Basically instead of reporting to an office, we report to the cloud, and the cloud is the canvas. And digitizing the workflow enables us to work better and keep people accountable for the work that they do.” – Silvina Moschini, Founder and President, TransparentBusiness

TransparentBusiness says that this type of system is both easier for the worker, and ultimately results in them having more privacy.

“It’s about consent. When you have a worker going to the office, you are monitoring them all the time. There are cameras everywhere, and this is an invasion to the privacy. People are super stressed out, they don’t need a micromanager on top of their head. So with these processes, they can say, “okay my process is transparent and utterly working so as I’m working, I can share what I’m doing with you.

The big question is does this actually get results? Because, for many managers and CEOs, losing productivity as a result of more workers working from home is a huge concern.

“As a c-level employee or colleague myself as a person, I’ve always been very fearful of employees being remote, I’ve always wanted in the office I want to look at them feeling I’m a very tactile leader, I think I wanted that.” “And I was always uncomfortable, “are they working?” “how do we assess them working?” and this has comforted me and a lot of CEOs I talk to that are using the product now. It’s comforting them that they are actually getting activity and productivity from their staff while being remote.” – Sam Naficy, CEO Prodoscore

“They’re seen as an easy option, you know you buy a software package, you know you have it installed on people’s computers, you then feel like as an employer that you’re somehow in control of you know this new dispersed workforce that are all working from home.” – Jamie Woodcock, Senior Lecturer, People and Organisations, The Open University

But if you look at the academic research on the topic, you find that these systems might not be accomplishing what you expect.

The evidence most broadly in the academic literature is that hard quantitative targets don’t work, they don’t make people feel good about their work, they don’t make people feel happy and secure in their employment, and so they tend to have an effect of well burnout, is one of the main ones and decreasing morale.

Implementing a surveillance for productivity tracking essentially masks a deeper more systemic issue. And that is, “do people actually know, what makes them successful at work?” – Darren Murph, Head of Remote, GitLab

We’ve known since the 50’s that people do their best when they’re given their goals, they’re given the tools to meet their goals, and they’re set on their way.” – Kate Lister, President, Global Workplace Analytics

“There are ways in which the psychological pressures of being watched can actually impair productivity.” – Stacy Hawkins, Professor Of Law, Rutgers Law School

“You want to say to an employer – “have you thought about talking to your workers?” You know like, asking them what’s going on, like having a discussion, because often you know, it’s that kind of genuine engagement that is what makes everybody’s experience of work better.

Data generally shows that employees are actually more productive when they work from home because they usually start earlier and they work later with fewer interruptions than they do in the office.

Does It Really Work?

So if people are on average as productive or more productive at home, are there still reasons to use a system like this?

“Inevitably averages mask people who are both less productive and more productive and so because you can’t distinguish who those employees individually are who are more productive and less productive unless you actually track them, that’s the justification for tracking them.” – Stacy Hawkins, Professor Of Law, Rutgers Law School

“When you don’t have visibility, you don’t know who is like really working super hard, and who is taking a COVID-19 vacation.” – Silvina Moschini, Founder and President, TransparentBusiness

“I do think that, there are very few times in the work place where you could reasonably say, the employer doesn’t have a right to know what I’m doing, or to not control my behavior or my conduct. And so, we increasingly find that some employees are willing to forego some of their privacy in exchange for jobs particularly in the current economy.” – Stacy Hawkins, Professor Of Law, Rutgers Law School

A lot of these questions lead to bigger ongoing issues about data and privacy.

Both Prodoscore and TransparentBusiness promote the idea of openness and keeping workers informed on what’s happening, but companies are not legally required to do that.

What’s The Alternative?

So if they don’t track and surveil workers, what should companies be doing when their employees are working from home.

Darren Murph is head of remote for GitLab, a company that has operated it’s more than 1,200 person work force all remotely since its inception.

“For a lot of managers, this is a jarring moment for them where they have to kind of question everything that has got them thus far and learn in real time what it takes to be a great remote manager.” – Darren Murph, Head of Remote, GitLab

GitLab doesn’t use surveillance software, it instead focuses on documenting metrics and objectives fostering open communication and emphasizing results.

“The key here is, don’t just look at how often someone is sitting in front of their keyboard, or in front of their desk. That was never a great way to measure productivity, even in the office. Fundamentally, we believe that you should measure results, not our spent.”

And that’s how it already works for many people in management.

“When are we going to start measuring the CEOs productivity?”

“At the end of the day, its investor returns andhow we do that and grow the stock price, right for public or private companies.”

For some much of this comes down to what it is you’re trying to accomplish in the first place.

“Its that drive towards productivity the only thing that we want from work. You know if it is, buy the software packages, have a viewing of people’s desktops while they were at home the whole time, but I don’t think that’s the kind of organization that many people want to work for today. One of the kind of lessons that people maybe can take away from this during the pandemic, is, just because a new tool is going to be used, always proposed to be used, doesn’t mean it has to be. Work should be a negotiation.”

So this is a point of inflection for managers and workers both.

“There are many employers that are looking at this and thinking, “this is a real opportunity to reshape work”. To change whether people think surveillance is acceptable or not, to change who needs to be in the office and who doesn’t. Will it benefit people who are working and they’re now able to work in new ways, or will it benefit employers who will find new ways to to get the most out of people’s time they’ve vought to make people work even harder and so on.”

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