How to Monitor Remote Workers — Ethically
Long-term remote work has necessitated questions about monitoring employee productivity. Is it possible to practice ethical surveillance?
Remote working is no short-term arrangement that will dissipate when society reopens — it’s here to stay. A fundamental paradigm shift solidified the moment that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey encouraged employees to work from home forever. Influential companies, including Google, Facebook, and Square, followed suit — and as these early adopters move, so do the rest. A notable 88% of organizations worldwide now either encourage or require their employees to work from home, and they reap significant benefits from the arrangement. Freed from tedious and stressful commutes, employees have more time to work: Up to 400 additional hours per year per employee could be reallocated to their workdays, resulting in productivity improvements across 77% of the workforce.
Coupled with this productivity rise, however, is an alarming surge in monitoring to scrutinize employee activity. Workers have long been aware of managers tracking the content of their emails, social media accounts, meeting records, time sheets, and workspace utilization, but with working from home now widespread, the stakes are a lot higher.
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Once COVID-19 prompted unprecedented numbers of people to work from home, thousands of companies, including PwC, started panic-buying spy software dubbed “tattleware.” Sneek, for example, takes webcam pictures of employees as regularly as every minute and uploads them for senior leaders to scrutinize. Another system, InterGuard, takes pictures as often as every five seconds, all because bosses in the office-free world increasingly desire evidence — including screenshots, login times, and keystrokes — to ensure that their workforces are productive. Such scrutiny isn’t isolated to one sector, and white-collar workers aren’t the only quantified workforce. Long-haul truckers, for example, are being prescribed devices that monitor their location and vehicle speeds, supposedly to help schedule their sleeping and driving periods.1
This may sound like an Orwellian Big Brother arrangement, but it is in fact legal for organizations to scrutinize their workforces in this way, as long as they disclose that they’re doing it. Managers claim that these measures provide a valuable library of information to help them understand and improve organizational productivity.
However, many workers disagree, harboring concerns about privacy and security. Although designed to ensure productivity, surveillance tools may actually reduce it for those workers who don’t feel trusted by their employers.
1. K.E.C. Levy, “The Contexts of Control: Information, Power, and Truck-Driving Work,” The Information Society 31, no. 2 (2015): 160-174.