Welcome to the era of the hyper-surveilled office


BOSSES HAVE always kept tabs on their workers. After all, part of any manager’s job is to ensure that underlings are earning their keep, not shirking and definitely not pilfering. Workplaces have long been monitored, by inspectors, CCTV cameras and more recently all manner of sensors, to check how many widgets individual workers are assembling or whether anyone is dipping too liberally into the petty-cash box. In the past few years, however, and especially as the pandemic has forced work from the controlled enclosure of the corporate office to the wilderness of the kitchen table, both the scope and scale of corporate surveillance have ballooned.

A study by the European Commission found that global demand for employee-spying software more than doubled between April 2019 and April 2020. Within weeks of lockdowns starting in March 2020, search queries for monitoring tools rose more than 18-fold. Surveillance-software makers reported huge increases in sales. At Time Doctor, which records videos of users’ screens or periodically snaps photos to ensure they are at their computer, sales suddenly trebled in April 2020 compared with the previous year. Those at DeskTime, which tracks time spent on tasks, quadrupled over the period. A survey of more than 1,000 firms in America in 2021 found that 60% of them used monitoring software of some type. A further 17% were considering it.

In an acknowledgement that corporate surveillance is on the rise—and raising eyebrows—on May 7th a New York state law kicked in requiring companies to inform employees about any electronic monitoring of their telephone, email and internet activity. Corporate scofflaws can be fined between $500 and $3,000 per violation. New York joins Connecticut and Delaware, which have required similar disclosures since the late 1990s and the early 2000s, respectively, and Europe, where companies have had to prove that monitoring policies have legitimate business interests—such as preventing intellectual-property theft or improving employee productivity—since 1995. More such rules are almost certain to emerge. They are unlikely to deter more offices from embracing Big Brotherliness.

Firms have lots of valid reasons to monitor their workers. Safety is one: tracking the whereabouts of staff in a building can help employers locate them in case of an emergency. Another is to keep money and data safe. To ensure their employees are not sharing sensitive information, banks such as JPMorgan Chase not only trawl through calls, chat records and emails, but also track how long staff are in the building and how many hours they have worked. In 2021 Credit Suisse began requesting access to personal devices used for work.

Startups are offering increasingly sophisticated threat assessment. One, Awareness Technologies, offers software called Veriato, which gives workers a risk score to determine their security risk to an employer, such as being responsible for data leaks or intellectual-property theft. Another, Deepscore, even claims its face and voice-screening tools are able to establish how trustworthy an employee is.

Another big reason for companies to surveil workers is to gauge—and enhance—productivity. The past couple of years have seen an explosion in tools available to managers that claim not just to tell whether Bob from marketing is working, but how hard. Employers can follow every keystroke or mouse movement, access webcams and microphones, scan emails for gossip or take screenshots of devices, often without alerting employees—often, as with products such as FlexiSPY, leaving the surveilled workers none the wiser. Some monitoring features are even available on widely used software such as Google Workspace, Microsoft Teams or Slack.

Many of the surveillance products are powered by articifical intelligence (AI), which has made strides in the past few years. Enaible claims its AI algorithms can measure how quickly employees complete different tasks as a way of weeding out slackers. Last year Fujitsu, a Japanese technology group, unveiled AI software which promises to gauge employees’ concentration based on their facial expression. RemoteDesk alert managers if workers eat or drink on the job.

Collected responsibly, such data can boost firms’ overall performance while benefiting individuals. Greater oversight of workers’ calendars can help prevent burnout. Technology can also empower some employees in the face of bias or discrimination. Parents and other staff with caring responsibilities can show they are just as productive as their office-dwelling colleagues. Employees tend to tolerate bag checks and CCTV cameras, which are regarded as legitimate ways to improve security. Likewise, many even accept that their work calls and email are fair game.

Smile, you’re on candid webcam
Critics of surveillance nevertheless fear that companies cannot be trusted with this sort of information. In 2020 Barclays, one of Britain’s biggest banks, was forced to scrap software that tracked the time employees spent at their desks, nudging those who spent too long on breaks, after facing a backlash from staff. That same year Microsoft came under scrutiny for a feature it rolled out to rate workers’ productivity using measures including how often staff attended video meetings or sent emails. Microsoft apologised for the feature and made changes to avoid individuals being identified. On paper, the goal was to provide detailed insight into how organisations work. In practice, it pitted employees against each other.

That points to another problem: many surveillance products aimed at boosting productivity are not well tested. Some risk being counterproductive. Research has associated monitoring with declines in trust and higher levels of stress, neither of which is obviously conducive to high performance. In one study of call centres, which were early adopters of surveillance tech, intensive monitoring of performance contributed to higher levels of strain, emotional exhaustion, depression and employee turnover. In a separate survey of 2,000 remote and hybrid workers in America by ExpressVPN, a virtual private network, over a third faced pressure to appear more productive or to work longer hours as a result of being monitored; a fifth felt dehumanised as a result. Nearly half of respondents pretended to be online and almost a third employed anti-surveillance software, specifically designed to dodge online monitoring.

Add concerns about privacy—especially as the snooping shifts from the office to the home—and it is small wonder that workers appear sceptical about the value of surveillance. According to a survey in 2018 by Britain’s Trades Union Congress, which represents 48 unions, only one in four surveyed workers think monitoring has more benefits than downsides. Around three-quarters find facial recognition software inappropriate, along with monitoring social media use outside work hours or using webcams to spy on staff. Research by Gartner, a consultancy, last year found that employees in nine large economies consistently favoured non-digital monitoring, such as in-person check-ins by managers, to the digital sort. Only 16% of French workers thought that any form of digital surveillance was acceptable.

With laws like New York’s coming into force, plenty of employees are about to learn that their employers’ views on the appropriateness of such products may be quite distinct from their own. Employers, for their part, may need to temper their enthusiasm for snooping on staff. Most companies will probably arrive at a sensible compromise. Those that don’t may find that too much knowledge is a dangerous thing.

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