Working from home under surveillance

Working from home surveillance software for your boss – The Washington Post – by Drew Harwell Apr 2020

This is in the category of “sad, but true”…

digital marketing director James Luce decided to replicate the office experience entirely online.

Employees were told to create a digital avatar and spend their workday in a virtual office, replete with chat room cubicles and a gossip-ready “water cooler.” They were also instructed to keep their home webcams and microphones on and at the ready, so a spontaneous face-to-face chat was always only a click away. 

I can’t believe people have to work under such incredibly stressful and demeaning conditions, especially during this pandemic which already puts so much stress on families quarantined together.  

In the weeks since social distancing lockdowns abruptly scattered the American workforce, businesses across the country have scrambled to find ways to keep their employees in line, packing their social calendars and tracking their productivity to ensure they’re telling the truth about working from home.

Thousands of companies now use monitoring software to record employees’ Web browsing and active work hours, dispatching the kinds of tools built for corporate offices into workers’ phones, computers and homes. But they have also sought to watch over the workers themselves,

  • mandating always-on webcam rules,
  • scheduling thrice-daily check-ins and
  • inundating workers with not-so-optional company happy hours, game nights and lunchtime chats.

Company leaders say the systems are built to boost productivity and make the quiet isolation of remote work more chipper, connected and fun.

Another bait and switch: those cavernous hangars where hundreds of employees sit at generic workstations in long rows instead of having at least a little privacy of cubicles were ostensibly a big improvement to “facilitate communications”, but it’s pretty clear that this is and was all about cost savings.

No one is more productive when working on what seems like a long assembly line, with another employee just a few feet away beside you, in front of you, and behind you.

Communication is not enhanced when you have to hear everyone’s phone conversations, both personal and work-related.

But some workers said all of this new corporate surveillance has further blurred the lines between their work and personal lives, amping up their stress and exhaustion at a time when few feel they have the standing to push back.

David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of the remote-work-software firm Basecamp, said…companies are increasingly subjecting workers to closer supervision due to a fundamental distrust that they’ll stay motivated on their own.

The virus lockdowns, he added, have also led some managers to frame this monitoring in the New Age language of social gathering, in hopes of eliding over the fact that workers are being watched.

“You don’t end up extracting better, deeper, more creative work by subjecting people to ever harsher measures of surveillance.”

many employees are probably working longer and more sporadic hours than ever before: NordVPN Teams, which runs virtual private networks for businesses, said in March it had seen working time in the United States climb from eight to 11 hours a day since the stay-at-home orders began.

A growing cottage industry of what some managers call “tattleware” now caters to company leaders wanting some way to peer over workers’ shoulders and confirm their productivity.

Several time-tracking and employee-monitoring companies, including

  • ActivTrak,
  • Hubstaff,
  • Time Doctor and
  • Teramind,

told The Washington Post they have seen their customer base and revenue soar since the pandemic pushed many companies remote.

Several companies allow managers to regularly capture images of workers’ screens and list employees by who is actively working and their hours worked over the previous seven days.

This brutal culling of workers at the “bottom” of productivity keep employees “on their toes”, stressed and miserable. No matter how good you are, some percentage of your group must be culled, so if you’re in a group of people that are all excellent producers you might get axed anyway.

One system, InterGuard, can be installed in a hidden way on workers’ computers and creates a minute-by-minute timeline of every app and website they view, categorizing each as “productive” or “unproductive” and ranking workers by their “productivity score.”

So, they don’t even tell you how you’re being monitored? Somehow, this makes it even worse because it shows the objective is to “catch” you at misbehaving, not just to keep your attention.

The system alerts managers if workers do or say something suspicious: In a demo of the software shown to The Post, the words “job,” “client” and “file” were all flagged, just in case employees were looking elsewhere for work.

InterGuard’s system can also record all of the workers’ emails, instant messages and keystrokes, and takes pictures of workers’ screens as frequently as every five seconds, which managers can review as they please.

Business is booming for their subscription-based software, Miller said: Hundreds of companies a week, three times their normal interest, are now asking about using the employee surveillance tools.

He called it “financially irresponsible” for companies not to keep a close eye on their employees’ daily work and said managers “feel completely entitled to know what their workers are doing” if they’re allowed to log in from home.

but most should have nothing to hide: “If you’re uncomfortable with me confirming the obvious [about your work], what does that say about your motives?”

Well, I’m sure most of us have nothing to hide, but would still feel our privacy was violated if there were a camera recording us 24/7.

Many said they’re already facing incredible anxiety over how their job responsibilities will change, whether their companies will have to lay off workers or cut wages, or even whether their industry will survive. But they are hesitant to speak up about the constant monitoring, for fear that any criticism could lead them to join the more than 30 million Americans who have filed for unemployment aid since mid-March.

“It’s really demoralizing to feel like you’ve done good work for a company, maybe for years, and have a solid, reliable track record, and they’re treating you as if you’re going to spend your day drinking beer and watching YouTube,” Green said. “People don’t work well under that kind of scrutiny, even in the best of times.

“They’re just checking in constantly. Every meeting is, ‘What are you working on, exactly?’” she said. “I worked all weekend and woke up to an email this morning asking for everything I did last week.”

Pragli’s system measures employees’ keyboard and mouse usage to assess whether they’re actively working — any more than 15 seconds can shift a worker from ‘active’ to ‘idle’ — and allows anyone to instantly start a video conversation by clicking on another person’s face, similar to swinging by their desk in a real-world office.

This must be only for jobs where people don’t have to think, and it’s still appalling and shows an astonishing lack of respect for workers.

The productivity of programmers would nose-dive if they had to type something every 15 seconds to stay out of trouble with the boss. I remember how much time I spent sketching diagrams and flow charts to organize my work, talking to other people about my questions, and none of that was done online.

They are also developing a facial-recognition feature that could display a worker’s real-world emotion on their virtual avatar’s face; a beta version of the feature currently works only if the person smiles.

This is even creepier, a digital amalgamation of my facial expression and the “corresponding” expression on an avatar.

another start-up, Sneek, takes that idea even further, uploading pictures of workers’ faces taken through their webcam as often as every minute for their colleagues to easily see.

Currie said the periodic photos were built to help remote teams feel a sense of teamwork and closeness over the Web. He knows some people are skeptical but says the system can be more humane than email and other methods of workplace communication.

This new wave of digitally mandated corporate camaraderie is quickly burning some workers out, said Green, who has heard from dozens of employees feeling socially fatigued and unable to say no, lest they be painted as an outcast.

There are some signs that all of this tech-enabled social monitoring is hitting a wall. The video-chat service Zoom recently removed an “attention tracking” setting, which alerted a call host when a participant was focused elsewhere, following public outcry about how invasive and creepy the feature seemed.

2 thoughts on “Working from home under surveillance

  1. canarensis

    Ye Gods! This is freaking horrifying on so many levels. I can’t imagine trying to live & work in this Orwellian situation…actually, George couldn’t have imagined the extent to which surveillance could be done, lucky man.

    And I just knew the old argument about “if you have nothing to hide, what are you afraid of?” was going to turn up. I wonder how many people who put forth that argument would really be willing to be under constant surveillance with no control about who does it or what is done with it, only that it could destroy your life for reasons you might never know (like the least productive getting the boot; no matter what, there’s gonna be a least productive person, just like there will always be a #1 opioid prescribing doctor. Take off the least productive or the #1 prescriber, & you have…someone else who’s least or #1. Until there’s nobody left at all.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Zyp Czyk Post author

      Yup, that culling of the bottom or top 10% of a group by whatever criteria is chosen, eventually destroys the function of the group because they are competing direct against each other instead of working together.



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