March 5, 2021

Another Coronavirus Side Effect: In-Home Surveillance By Remote Workers’ Employers

By Tim Cushing
Well, it took a pandemic to normalize domestic surveillance by [checks notes] employers. Not sure if this is the dystopia we needed or the one we deserved, but the shelter-in-place policies that have turned lots of office workers into telecommuters has led to incredible growth in one particular market sector.

With so many people working remotely because of the coronavirus, surveillance software is flying off the virtual shelves.

“Companies have been scrambling,” said Brad Miller, CEO of surveillance-software maker InterGuard. “They’re trying to allow their employees to work from home but trying to maintain a level of security and productivity.”

Axos spokesman Gregory Frost said in a statement that “the enhanced monitoring of at-home employees we implemented will ensure that those members of our workforce who work from home will continue” to meet quality and productivity standards that are expected from all workers.

This new surveillance obviously doesn’t extend to the executive levels of these companies. It’s the rank-and-file that will feel it the most — the same that have been subjected to always-on monitoring of their computer and internet use while at the office.

It’s another system — one that can be gamed just as easily as those deployed in the workplace. Actually, these will probably be gamed even more easily considering some companies are using weird metrics like “emails sent” to gauge worker productivity.

But there’s more to it than virtual bean-counting and hall-monitoring. The spyware that works-from-home will also alert clients if employees engage in certain behavior.

Managers using InterGuard’s software can be notified if an employee does a combination of worrisome behaviors, such as printing both a confidential client list and a resume, an indication that someone is quitting and taking their book of business with them.

Companies that don’t want to pay extra for snooping software are relying on existing systems to make sure their employees are earning their paychecks. But these methods are even more intrusive than software specifically crafted to track telecommuter productivity.

“I’ve heard from multiple people whose employers have asked them to stay logged into a video call all day while they work,” said Alison Green, founder of the workplace-advice website Ask a Manager.

Slightly less intrusive than this low-tech “solution” is a new product that acts like a low-power CCTV camera installed by proxy in every telecommuting employees’ home.

In order to keep productivity high while working remotely, some companies are turning to tools like Sneek. The software features a “wall of faces” for each office, which stays on throughout the workday and features constantly-updating photos of workers taken through their laptop camera every one to five minutes.

Welcome to micromanagement hell:

If a coworker clicks on their face, Sneek’s default settings will instantly connect the two workers in a live video call, even if the recipient hasn’t clicked “accept.” However, people can also configure their settings to only accept calls manually — and only take webcam photos manually — if their employer allows it.

Chances are, none of these employees were subjected to supervisory visits to their desks every few minutes while at work. There’s no reason for them to be subjected to it now just because they’re working from home. The only reason this is happening is because it can happen. It’s seamless, automated, and makes zero physical or mental demands from their employers.

If you can’t trust your employees to work remotely, you probably can’t trust them at the office either. And if there was any mutual respect between the employer and its employees, efforts like this will erode that very quickly. Employees who feel their employers don’t trust them aren’t too motivated to add value to the company they work for. Always-on surveillance isn’t going to result in productivity. It will result in pointless busywork and a shit-ton of resentment.

Sneek’s CEO Del Currie issued one of stupidest defense of pervasive surveillance of employees while defending his product from critics.

The purpose of Sneek isn’t surveillance, Currie said, but office culture.

Currie claims a wall-of-faces that’s continuously connected to each other (as well as their mutual supervisors) will keep people from feeling “isolated” while working from home. Currie may sincerely believe his remote work tool is better for employees’ wellbeing, but it’s doubtful most of the companies signing up for Sneek accounts to deal with newly-minted teleworkers are concerned about anything more than ensuring no one’s getting paid to do nothing — even if they’ve paid for plenty of hours of zero productivity back when everyone was under one roof.

Things aren’t going to go back to normal once the coronavirus is under control. Employers may find they can still get work done without needing everyone in the same building breathing the same air. Some will find they can get the same amount done with fewer employees. The only constant will be the ability to invade their employees’ homes to “ensure productivity” or “build office culture” or whatever. That will be here to stay.