Employee monitoring is exploding with remote work and could become the new norm

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, as office workers began working remotely on company laptops, many of their employers secretly followed them, sending hidden, staring eyes into their homes to watch them. Fears that workers could hang out, bake sourdough or take a cheeky nap as their inboxes reached critical mass fueled a rise in the number of request for software that tracks employees as they do their work from home.

“Companies are scrambling,” Brad Miller, CEO of surveillance software maker InterGard, Recount Bloomberg in March 2020. “They are trying to allow their employees to work from home but are trying to maintain a level of safety and productivity.”

Worker surveillance dates back more than a century, but it is barely recognizable today from the days when the Ford Motor Company sent inspectors from its “sociological department” to make unannounced home visits at the employees’ homes. Now, employers can simply deploy clandestine software to monitor keystrokes and mouse movements on company computers, retrieve emails, and take screenshots of employee screens. The use of biometrics employee identifiers that track workers’ physical locations — and even the duration of their conversations with co-workers — has allowed organizations to keep a close eye on their workers, wherever they are.

This trend has accelerated during the pandemic: according to an unpublished study by the HR organization Gartner, 60% of companies with at least 1,000 employees who responded to the survey had adopted these technologies by the end of 2021, compared to only 30% before the pandemic. pandemic, spokeswoman Teresa Zuech said. As the distributed workforce becomes increasingly entrenched, data collection practices are rapidly expanding into uncharted and widely unregulated ground. Activities once tracked in an office are now collected inside people’s homes.

“The biggest concern with surveillance in the pandemic is that the blurring of lines between work and home is getting worse,” Jessica Vitak, a professor of information studies at the University of Maryland, told HR Brew.

Privacy experts and researchers interviewed by HR Brew predict that in the coming years, employee surveillance could take on a more personalized and possibly more invasive dimension as organizations continue to allow employees to work remotely. For companies that practice some level of worker data collection, issues of consent and transparency will be crucial to maintaining employee trust.

The HR fly on the wall

For bosses who solemnly remember exercising their authority in a real physical office, there are a range of technological tools that mimic that sentiment by monitoring worker bees no matter where they pollinate. Companies such as Teramind, ActivTrak, Hubstaff, and Workpuls have developed tools that log keystrokes or capture random screenshots of whatever workers are looking at. Reports are compiled that distill, albeit incompletely, exactly what a worker did with their day.

The tools are apparently a way to ensure productivity when workers could theoretically slack off watching a number of ASMR videos on TikTok. “Employers have a legitimate interest in monitoring the work of their employees to ensure that they are productive and efficient,” explained Jay Stanley, senior policy analyst at the American Civil Liberties Union.

These reports, however, provide a fractured lens. “I think one of the new things is also adding a layer of AI on top of that, because, you know, AI logic can be opaque. So people are judged by algorithms,” said said Stanley.

It also resulted in a hilarious dystopia countermeasures.

Traditionally, working in an office means workers waive certain rights they have and expect to stay at home, but the new era of remote work has upended those expectations, now that data collection is happening in bedrooms and home offices. “It’s hard to stop a child from walking in the back of a Zoom call, it’s hard to stop your kids being caught on camera and recorded, and I think people are aware of that,” said Aiha Nguyen, program director for the Future of Work Initiative at the Institute for Data and Society Research.

Except that some workers don’t necessarily know they’re being watched, or how. In a 2021 survey by the Social Science Research Council of 645 workers who had worked remotely at the same company for at least some time since March 2020, 23% of respondents were unsure whether their employer had changed monitoring policies or adopted new technologies to track them during working hours. According to one of the survey’s researchers, Jessica Vitak, this sets a worrying precedent. “The focus should be on the company to ensure that its employees have not only been informed, but are aware and understand these policies,” she said.

A future of function creep

If 2020 has sparked a frantic race to procure new technologies to monitor home workers, the next few years could potentially see them permanently integrated into the business ecosystem. Surveillance researchers like Vitak call this phenomenon “feature creep,” which occurs when technology is used for purposes beyond its original intent. “Things that were instituted specifically for the pandemic will then become the norm because many employers believe that more data will always be better,” she noted.

Of course, surveillance of office workers and low-wage workers in the retail, restaurant, call center and distribution sectors was already ubiquitous before the pandemic, said Cynthia Khoo, partner. at the Center on Privacy and Technology at Georgetown Law. HR Brew. What’s happening now, she noted in an email, is “a more explicit continuation and escalation of the surveillance that was already happening through pre-existing data collection, tracking and monitoring made possible. by office technologies used regardless of the pandemic”.

Khoo also sees job creep as a potential threat and likened invasive workplace surveillance to the “wider context of policing and state surveillance.”

“Once large corporations and employers claim or are granted sweeping powers over those under their control,” she wrote, “that power may be difficult to undo after the alleged justification for it ceases to exist. exist – which is why lawmakers and regulators should act to protect the privacy rights of workers, among others.

A recently drafted bill Massachusetts The state legislature seeks to protect workers from the “non-consensual capture of information or communications in an individual’s home,” although there is no broader legal framework protecting worker privacy. remotely at the federal level. Ifeoma Ajunwa, a law professor at the University of North Carolina Law School, argued in a paper 2020 that the “quantification of the worker in a way and to a degree never seen in history” should call for new legal protections.

Generally speaking, “employee privacy law, to the extent that it exists, is notoriously weak in the United States,” Khoo said. “Worker monitoring technologies, as well as the algorithmic management technologies with which they are typically deployed, and their use by employers, are largely unregulated.”

The Georgetown Privacy and Technology Center has published a Rough draft of The Worker Privacy Act in 2020, a proposed federal law that would establish clear prohibitions on the use of data, require employees to explain what data they collect and why, in addition to establishing a “new division within the Department of Labor will enforce the protections of the Act. So far, however, there doesn’t seem to be any momentum for legislation at the federal level to create new protections, and eyes watching remote workers from afar have largely limitless views.—SB

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Maria D. Ervin