If you’ve been known to take long lunch breaks, leave your laptop open while you clean the house, or you’ve been “quiet quitting”, listen up. Because your employer may be monitoring you. Enter: workplace surveillance. Which sounds like something fit for the CIA, but it's actually pretty common.
Since the pandemic started, one in three medium-to-large US companies has adopted some kind of worker surveillance system, according to the Wall Street Journal. And the New York Times has reported that one company even used it to determine paycheck amounts. Surprise: Employees aren’t loving it.
To learn more about who’s being watched and why, our “Skimm This” podcast team called up Hilke Schellmann, a reporter covering artificial intelligence in the future of work and a journalism professor at NYU.
Wait, am I being monitored at work?
Possibly. According to Schellmann, it’s more common than you think. “I think a lot of folks feel like ‘Oh, it’s not happening to me,’" she said. “But I wouldn’t be so sure, because it’s really hard to tell.”
She said companies are using several ways to monitor employees. Think: Keyboard strokes, emails, time spent on certain websites, location data, and even mouse movement.
“One thing that I've seen over and over again that companies use is recording idle tracking,” she said. “If you stop using your mouse or you stop typing, after a certain amount of time it will sort of flag you as idle.” And it seems like employees might be catching on, given all of the TikTok videos of people trying to keep their Slack status as ‘available’.
Why are employers doing this?
It’s all in the name of productivity. And it’s increased since the pandemic started. "A lot of managers and employers got a little nervous,” Schellmann said. "[And have wondered,] ‘what are those people doing at home? How can we make sure they're working hard?’”
But the big question, Schellmann explained, is whether these surveillance metrics are a good way to measure productivity. Back in the old days of 2019, a manager could just look across the office and see you sitting at your desk. But in the WFH era, they need special tech like employee monitoring software to do that.
But as anyone who’s ever done their Amazon shopping while working will tell you, sitting at your desk or clicking around on your computer doesn’t necessarily equal productivity. “We still think if we just see activity on a computer, they must be productive,” she said. But that’s not always the case: Somebody who might be a very productive salesperson might have 160 Zoom calls every week and only five in-person meetings. But somebody else who's also very successful in selling a product, might just have a lot of meetings in person and way less emails.”
Is employee monitoring even legal?
It sure is. And you likely signed a document in your contract consenting to some level of workplace surveillance when you started your job. “Probably a hundred percent of people have initialed [the document] without understanding that anything that happens on a work computer belongs, in the United States, to the company,” Schellmann said.
Not sure if you’re being monitored? Schellmann’s advice: Assume you are. Treat your work computer like your company’s property. And use your personal computer for…personal use.
How is workplace surveillance impacting workplace morale?
It’s not doing employers any favors. “These tools may backfire in a lot of companies because employees do feel like they're not being trusted,” Schellmann said. “So they leave, and we all know that we have a talent shortage.” Looking at you, Great Resignation.
Schellmann also has some advice for companies using employee monitoring software: “A lot of companies might want to think about, ‘Can I do something [so] that employees will trust me and like to be at this company?’” she said. “I think surveying employees undermines that very intention.”
Workplace surveillance is in the spotlight right now. Because employers want to make sure their employees are productive. But it could have negative consequences for businesses, too. And give major Big Brother vibes. So make sure to use your work tech in a safe way.
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