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Surveillance is entering the workplace — even if your workplace is your home

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Several workers sit at computers with headsets. One employee in the center can be seen facing towards the camera with his forehead and eyes above his desktop.

Workers at one of the 19 national pandemic flu service call centres in the country, answer calls from people concerned about swine flu, July 23, 2009 in London, England. ( Richard Pohle/WPA Pool/Getty Images)

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We’re rapidly coming up on two years of the COVID-19 pandemic. For many, working from home is mostly a plus. No more commute, no more coworker B.O.

But your boss may still be looking over your shoulder.

According to a survey from, six out of 10 employers have begun monitoring their employees’ computer usage at home. Many claim it’s a way to stop time theft. Others say it’s an invasion of privacy when an employer can see you or listen to you at home.

Dennis Consorte, a small business and startup consultant at, says there are several ways a company can monitor what its employees do. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Dennis Consorte: They’re tracking what you’re doing on the web. They’re tracking what applications you’re using, and for how long, and they’re tracking your keystrokes. Sometimes what they’ll do is they’ll take screenshots periodically over the duration of your work so that they can check in and spot check and make sure you’re doing all the things you’re supposed to do. And I get it, I understand the concern. But of course, like anything else, there’s always a way around it.

Dennis Consorte. (Courtesy photo)

Jed Kim: What do you mean a way around it?

Consorte: What I mean is that even if somebody isn’t savvy enough to figure out how to block that tracking on their computer, we all carry mobile devices around. So a person could be utilizing their computer and doing all the stuff they need to do. And in parallel, they’re doing their text messages, they’re checking their social media, and all of that stuff, just on a different device. So this tracking, in my opinion, really just creates this air of mistrust, and it causes people to behave even more poorly than if you just develop that trust and gave people a sense of purpose at work.

Kim: How much evidence is there to support the argument that this kind of surveillance actually incentivizes productivity among employees?

Consorte: In our survey, a lot of companies said that, “Yes, it did make people more productive.” But what I would also say is that you have to look at the incentives. If monitoring software is making people more productive, because they’re fearful, that’s not a very healthy relationship, and it’s not sustainable. So in my opinion, rather than thinking about how you can use monitoring software to make people more productive, think about how you can make your company better to make people more productive. And while these lockdowns had some good and bad things that came out of them, one of the good things that came out of all of this was people recalibrated their values, and they realized that time is the most important commodity that any of us have, you can’t get it back. And so people are looking for jobs that give them that sense of purpose — those companies that have a mission statement that they can believe in, that have core values that they can align with. This is how you should be thinking about running your company.

Kim: Does this kinda highlight that employers are lousy at measuring outcomes?

Consorte: I would say that if an employer is leaning on tracking software, they’re probably lousy at measuring outcomes. And I would say that it really takes somebody to bring this message to their attention. Because somebody who’s still got this mindset today probably isn’t getting out there and looking at all of the other ideas and the possibilities in terms of how they can run their business more effectively. So what we can do as people who work for different companies or work with different companies, is put that message out there, let your employer know that there are ways around these problems. And it really comes down to communicating and agreeing on ideas and giving each other flexibility.

Kim: What’s the downside for companies that over-monitor? What’s the risk?

Consorte: In this remote environment, you’re competing not with just the other companies that are in your vicinity, you’re competing with companies around the world. And so if you create this environment where people feel like they are not trusted, they’re going to try to find a company that gives them the trust and gives them the flexibility and just looks at the outcomes that they produce rather than monitoring every minute they spend at the keyboard and how many times they press the keys. So, the risk to a company is that your best people are going to be very savvy and they’re going to go to your competitors, and that’s something that nobody wants.

Kim: Could this type of surveillance stay well after the pandemic? With people are going back to their in-person jobs or even remaining hybrid?

Consorte: Yes, I believe that this technology will continue, and I believe that it will continue to grow. We’ve got so much new technology every day, it’s almost unbelievable. And if you look at other industries, it’s disturbing. I’ll give you an example. So Amazon has these Amazon Go shops. That’s frictionless commerce. You walk in, you’ve got like 30 cameras pointed at you from every direction, so that they can see when you pick items up off the shelf, put them in a bag, put them back, whatever. And when you walk out of the store, the algorithm calculates everything that you did in there, and then it gives you your total and you don’t have to deal with the checkout process. So this frictionless concept is wonderful in certain concepts. But now imagine you go to the office, and you’ve got 30 cameras pointing at you, and they’re measuring how much time you spend at the water cooler, how much time you spend on bathroom breaks, who you talk to on the phone. This technology already exists today. It’s just a question of whether somebody is going to decide to apply it to the work environment.

Related Links: More insight from Jed Kim

Here’s a link, if you want to check out Dennis’s review of the companies that surveyed. One alarming tidbit: 88% of the companies that use monitoring software say it’s provided them justification to fire someone.

You might think micromanage-y monitoring is mainly for more rote work. But The Washington Post has reported on lawyers having to put up with it. Even more problematic is that the software used is often really glitchy. It boots employees off for no good reason and requires them to sign in using facial recognition software — which, of course, has problems with skin tone.

Finally, we’ve also got some links to pages with information on how to tell you’re being monitored or how to act when you are. You know, just in case.

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