Employee surveillance - a dangerous trend in remote work

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There's a saying that even the smallest drop of sewage can spoil a glass of the finest champagne, no matter how big the glass is or how much champagne you pour in it.

For the past three years I've been trying to popularize remote work as an alternative to office-based work. I said alternative, yes. It is important to make this distinction since in our complexly organized world, there's rarely a case where one option could completely replace another. Unfortunately, in our polarized society with its tendency to be distributed at the extremes of any topic and thin at the middle, it is hard to get such a concept across. For people who only see in black or white it's hard to make them see the grays.

While advocating on my merry way, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and it pushed many companies to forcefully adopt and adapt to remote work.

Unfortunately, the change was too abrupt. Companies had little time to truly adapt. The slowest-changing element in any system is the mindset of the people "working" the system. And these people we call managers had no time to adapt to the new situation and change their mindset and approaches. I'm using the term "manager" broadly here. It means anyone with strategic/leadership responsibilities.

From a technology standpoint I believe the pandemic proved how powerful tech companies are and how fast innovation and adaptation can occur. But I can't say the same thing about the people component.

So instead of adapting mentally to the new situation, many managers darted to their happy places. Back to the comfort zone, like a startled lobster darts to its designated shelter, or to the closest place it identifies as safe — I'm paraphrasing Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, in his book 12 Rules For Life - An Antidote To Chaos. For many a managers, this comfort zone was the physical, office-based, organization policies and politics. What are those?

  1. Employee travels to the office.
  2. Employee uses access card.
  3. Employee sits in chair all day.
  4. Employee will sometimes be in meetings.
  5. Employee is working because they know I'm looking.
  6. Employee is at their computer so they are productive.
  7. Employee will immediately slack off when I turn around.

I am absolutely convinced that these sentences might seem exaggerated. They're not! Some of these thoughts cross the minds of even the most down-to-earth people in leadership positions.

Why? Because they're humans, that's why! Because they might have a bad day and their self-control is at an all-time low and they need something or someone to blame.

The office has been moved to your living room. All of it!

Based on the above assumptions, managers, business owners and more generally companies' higher-ups decided there's no need for them to change their mindset, since that is already working and successful, so why not move the office with everything it's got, to people's living rooms and kitchen counters.

All of a sudden, people had to:

  • Join a company or department-level chat and stay logged in at all times
  • Keep their webcams on at all times
  • Have their microphones on as well

No, I am not making these requirements up! I've had people — plural, mind you — come to me to ask for help finding a remote job because their companies are asking them to do such things. Some of them I knew personally and they are good professionals with decent work ethics, they would've never asked me for work only to get an easier job where they could slack off. They were just appalled by these requirements as they stood against their principles.

What's even worse is that there are tools which serve precisely this surveillance purpose, under the umbrella of "creating an atmosphere similar to the one at the office where you can just walk up to someone and talk to them". This just tells me that some business people, somewhere, still think open space offices are beneficial for creative work. In case you don't know yet, they're not!

Organizations’ pursuit of increased workplace collaboration has led managers to transform traditional office spaces into ‘open’, transparency-enhancing architectures with fewer walls, doors and other spatial boundaries, yet there is scant direct empirical research on how human interaction patterns change as a result of these architectural changes.

In two intervention-based field studies of corporate headquarters transitioning to more open office spaces, we empirically examined—using digital data from advanced wearable devices and from electronic communication servers—the effect of open office architectures on employees' face-to-face, email and instant messaging (IM) interaction patterns.

Contrary to common belief, the volume of face-to-face interaction decreased significantly (approx. 70%) in both cases, with an associated increase in electronic interaction. In short, rather than prompting increasingly vibrant face-to-face collaboration, open architecture appeared to trigger a natural human response to socially withdraw from officemates and interact instead over email and IM. This is the first study to empirically measure both face-to-face and electronic interaction before and after the adoption of open office architecture. The results inform our understanding of the impact on human behaviour of workspaces that trend towards fewer spatial boundaries.

Abstract — The impact of the ‘open’ workspace on human collaboration

As you can tell, open space is bad, and asking people to sit in a chat just so you can "grab them when you feel like it" is ludicrous.

One of the people I mentioned earlier, who simply got in touch with me to complain about their situation, told me that their company HR is tasked to randomly call them, and if they don't answer or call back within 5 minutes, it means they weren't working.

I imagine the productivity of such a person as a minced onion. They would be minding their work, and all of a sudden Skype starts ringing on their laptop. If they have it on their phone and tablet, they're screwed!

Probably there's this universal belief that people working from home can't have sleeping children, or other household members minding their own work and so this practice is justified.

Enter employee-surveillance software

I'm not even going to name such tools, simply because I don't even want to give them more exposure than they deserve, but I'm just going to say that I believe it is immoral to work on such a tool.

I remember when I was working on a startup in 2017 which was doing developer productivity analysis (branded as project health scoring ofc.) and some of the people involved started exploring the idea of a mobile app. They had the brilliant idea of using the phone's sensors to detect whether the developer left their desk, and if they're out smoking for example, measure how long so you can catch slackers.

Of course, this is an over-simplification, it wasn't worded precisely like this, but that was the main goal. If I was contemplating the idea of exiting this venture due to other reasons, after hearing that proposal and people insisting on it, I did not have to think twice. I wasn't going to be the CTO of an app that does that type of gnarly surveillance.

What if a developer was upset because they couldn't find a solution to a tech challenge. They went out for a 30-min smoke break and read through the API docs of some service that was giving them trouble and then came back saved the day. Would that developer be labelled as a slacker?

They had no clue how many challenges related to that product I solved by spending too much time on the toilet.

We have to rethink what goes into the word "productivity"

Some of those tools are meant to allow company leaders to peer over workers’ shoulders and confirm they're being productive.

Can anyone confirm productivity by looking at the inputs?

While this is suitable for an assembly line, or something that would work on a factory floor, when talking about creative work, knowledge work, what are the inputs one can measure?

Most of the times, in knowledge work, we know we're supposed to provide a solution to an often ill-defined problem. So before starting to solve it, we must define it, because what's worse than doing the right thing wrong is doing the wrong thing right!

Assuming you have to read three different articles and conduct own research to solve a problem, how can the inputs be quantified? By counting the articles? What if they're really long, essay-like articles? By counting the number of words in an article? Should that be correlated with reading speed? How can reading speed be established? What's the baseline? What's considered peak performance?

Isn't it easier to look at the outputs and compare reality with estimation and expectation?

All that's left to do in this case is to look at the results of a certain worker and compare them to what the worker said they will deliver, or what the team has planned/projected.

And you don't need any surveillance to do that!

Fight back

If your company uses such surveillance tools, do everything in your power to fight back! But don't fool yourself that you're fighting back by tricking the system and by showing in how many ways the system can be gamed. This will have the reverse effect. It will enforce the belief that people's main objective at work is to shirk responsibility and avoid working.

Formulate strong, grounded arguments, for why such practices are immoral and unnecessary. Talk to your coworkers about this, openly. Reach out to HR, since they should be the first to acknowledge how flawed this approach really is. In many countries this is not even legal, so you could also talk to the company's legal team.

If the company retaliates, or if your message falls on deaf ears, you also have the option to go public. This is the least pleasant way to deal with things, but we believe such companies don't deserve to have employees. People should know about these practices and avoid companies companies who employ them.

At the end of the day, you have to do everything in your power, within legal bounds, to prevent the expansion of this orwellian trend. To parahprase Jordan Peterson again, sins of omission are often worse than those of commission. This means that if you accept this sort of surveillance tools under the pretext of "keeping people together" or allowing people to "peer over each others' shoulder like we did in the office", you are just as guilty as the people introducing these tools.

Community Contributions

Some of our articles are enhanced by the amazing remote work community. We welcome anyone with a well-formed opinion to submit their contributions and we make sure to shine the best light on them and offer an honorable mention of their LinkedIn profile.

Catalina Nichita, from Bucharest, Romania — Lawyer

Not to mention that employee surveillance software can generate large amounts of personal data (PII — personally identifiable information). Common features of such software include: individual keystroke logging, live screen recording or screenshots of application windows or device screens, and monitoring of activity on websites and applications.

Before General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), employers tended to rely on implied consent to justify workplace monitoring. But the GDPR’s requirements specify that consent isn’t valid where there is an unequal relationship, such as in the employer–employee one.

References

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