Sep 26, 2022 - Economy

Remote workers are increasingly surveilled, as manager paranoia surges

Illustration of a person sitting at a computer desk with a giant infrared camera taking their temperature

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Critics call it bossware. Technology used to surveil workers, already widely adopted in lower-wage industries, is growing popular in the white-collar world — managers track keystrokes, mouse clicks and even take screenshots of monitors.

Why it matters: The uptick in monitoring happened as more workers went remote, and managers increasingly worried that they weren't working. "Productivity paranoia," is what Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella called it in an interview last week.

What's happening: The number of employers who use some kind of worker surveillance doubled since the pandemic, the vice president of HR research at Gartner tells the WSJ. Two-thirds of medium-to-large companies now do this, up from one-third, he says.

  • In some cases, workers say monitoring cheats them out of pay. A finance executive told the NYT that if she stepped away to use the bathroom, her computer would go idle and the time wouldn't be counted toward her hourly rate.

State of play: There isn't clear data showing that this kind of monitoring actually increases productivity, as Christopher Mims reports in the WSJ.

  • Studies do show that monitoring increases worker stress, and absenteeism — perhaps not the desired impact during a labor shortage and at a time of increased worker unrest.
  • Workers also game these systems — some buying "mouse jigglers," to make it seem like they're working while away from the desk, doing something crazy, like making coffee.

Zoom out: Working from home is inherently different from working in the office. Folks work on weekends or later in the night. Sometimes the lines between personal and professional are more mixed up.

  • "It behooves companies to respect worker privacy as people shift quickly from personal to employment-related activities and back during the course of the day," notes Brookings senior fellow Darrell West in a recent blog post.
  • If employers decide to forge ahead with close monitoring anyway, human resource group SHRM advises "being transparent" about it.

The bottom line: Trust is a key ingredient in the relationship between boss and worker. Obsessive monitoring does not typically foster that connection.

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