Here’s an interesting question to consider: What is your employer paying you for?
Do they own your time, from the point at which is it contractually available to them? Do they own your desktop? What do they value – the work you produce, or the hours you spend on it?
These abstract-sounding questions get to the heart of one way that technology can be used to erode trust and personal boundaries, in the work-from-home environment, not least because of the degree of data and analytics functionality embedded in modern collaboration tools. They say that what gets measured gets done, but does this mean that just because you can measure something, you should? Absolutely not.
Not long ago, Microsoft Office’s ‘Productivity Score’ was highlighted by Austrian digital rights non-profit organisation Cracked Labs, for generating a rating of users based on aggregated data of their engagement right across the Office 365 tool suite. This can be used to provide managers with individual views on how many hours an employee has spent sending emails, using chat, the team channels they’ve posted to, and so on.
Microsoft pointed out in their defence that this feature was opt-in, designed to help IT admins provide technical support and guidance at an individual level, while also helping organisations make the most of their technology investments and collaboration practices. However, one of the problems is that nothing is ‘opt-in’ about it for the user, and the tool suite effectively normalises a highly intrusive level of worker surveillance.
This is bad enough in the office, but when such monitoring is used in a home-based setting – perhaps on devices also used for personal purposes – it becomes particularly icky and unpleasant. It’s like school bullies who were once left in the playground following children home and into their personal space, often with devastating outcomes.
Microsoft’s productivity tools are the least of it, compared with applications deliberately dedicated to employee surveillance, all of which have seen an explosion of use since the forced homeworking phenomena of the Coronavirus pandemic. Queries for “How to monitor employees working from home” increased by 1,705% in April and 652% in May 2020 compared with searches carried out the preceding year. Businesses like Time Doctor, Hubstaff, FlexiSPY and Activ Trak are doing very nicely out of the sheer lack of trust so many managers and organisations seem to have in the people working for them.
Many of these tools literally monitor down to the keystroke level. Typing on the slow side? Sorry, you can be penalised as inefficient. Or your manager might receive an alert if your keyboard is idle for a predetermined time. If this makes you so anxious your IBS flares up, you’d better take your laptop with you into the bathroom – just make sure your boss’ spyware hasn’t overridden your webcam settings first!
If you use email or messaging tools provided by your employer, you can reasonably expect they will have oversight over their appropriate use, and accept there’s no such thing as a truly private conversation. If they provide you with a machine to work with, it’s also reasonable for access to be blocked to certain websites or apps which are deemed too risky, and even if you are using your own machine, naturally there should be absolute control over corporate assets such as personal data and intellectual property.
But by and large, my feeling is that this kind of monitoring should be on an exceptional basis only. Configure your collaboration platform to detect breaches of compliance, like someone sending out an internal document. Notify staff that personal communications may be archived or accessed if needed, then leave them alone unless there is a complaint or an issue of some description. When my teenage daughters first got smartphones and email, the deal was, I held the passwords and override access, and they knew I was really not interested in their messages to their friends and would only use that power if it became absolutely necessary.
Sure, I was paying for the phone and the contract, just as the employer is paying for your time when you’re working for them, but that didn’t mean trust had no place in establishing the norms of use. And unless you are cranking widgets on a production line, there has to be better ways of managing your actual work output than monitoring your keystrokes, or timing your use of each app. In the office, you might have felt great stress and personal pressure because of performance expectations driven by meaningful metrics like sales targets, KPIs, or key results areas, but at least they were based on a realistic proxy for the value you were providing within your role, as opposed to how many bashes your finger makes on a key.
On a more ongoing basis, there are many ways to make work and progress visible, to measure things which matter, and to drive desirable outcomes – like first call resolution rate in customer service, for example. You don’t need to monitor every meaningless action someone takes, you need to be aware of the impact they’re having, and how effective their work is.
Any organisation which finds itself resorting to this kind of intrusive employee surveillance, with total disregard for how this makes people feel when they’re in their own homes, needs to take a good long look at their culture, their management training, and their levels of trust.
If this is happening where you work, you do have a choice – remember that when you can work from home, you can work for anyone.
This is an excerpt from Finding Your Edge: Establishing and Maintaining Boundaries When You Work From Home, book 2 in the Healthy Happy Homeworking series.