By Meera Jagannathan
The rise of remote work during the pandemic has spurred some employers, faced with a lack of control over a scattered workforce, to tighten their grip or introduce new ways of monitoring employees. But some say the brunt of employee surveillance still falls on those working in brick-and-mortar settings.
While many Americans still don’t have the luxury of access to remote work , the share of U.S. workers working from home surged after COVID-19 stay-at-home orders took effect — and about three in four workers who are able to work remotely now say they’d want to continue doing so at least one day a week even after the pandemic is controlled.
As such, some employers are keener than ever to keep tabs on workers they only glimpse in passing Zoom /zigman2/quotes/211319643/composite ZM +2.74% meetings. An analysis by the research and advisory firm Gartner showed that “16% of employers are using technologies more frequently to monitor their employees through methods such as virtual clocking in and out, tracking work computer usage, and monitoring employee emails or internal communications/chat,” according to a June blog post .
A 2018 Gartner survey of 239 large companies revealed that more than half were using “some type of nontraditional monitoring techniques,” but the firm predicted “that trend will be accelerated by new monitoring of remote workers and the collection of employee health and safety data.” Employee-monitoring software companies have seen increased business since the pandemic began, according to multiple reports .
“There may be a big uptick, but if anything, there’s just more of an awareness of it,” Laurie Ruettimann, an author and human-resources consultant in Raleigh, N.C., told MarketWatch. “People are more aware of corporate systems being applied to a new type of work environment.”
Some of these solutions monitor keystrokes, browsing time and mouse movements, Ruettimann said. There’s even software that will periodically snap webcam pictures of employees to make sure they’re at their desks, she said.
“Now it’s almost as if you’re punching a time clock through your webcam or just by being on a specific platform — it’s checking in at random times to make sure that you’re active,” she said. “We’re all trained in this Henry Ford model that we think people have to show up, and that time and attendance equal productivity and output. But everything we know about the world of work contradicts that .”
Controversial examples of such monitoring have emerged: The London outlet Financial News reported in June , for example, that the audit firm PwC had designed a facial-recognition tool to track when finance-firm employees were away from their computers, “including for bathroom breaks.” And workers at an agricultural trade publication were asked to create digital avatars and work in a “virtual office” during the workday with their cameras and microphones switched on, the Washington Post reported in April.
Employee monitoring tends to fall into one of three broad categories “that are either unique or heightened during COVID work-from-home,” said John Verdi, the vice president of policy at the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank and advocacy group funded in part by tech companies, including Facebook /zigman2/quotes/205064656/composite FB +1.81% , Google /zigman2/quotes/205453964/composite GOOG +1.39% , Amazon /zigman2/quotes/210331248/composite AMZN +2.30% and Apple /zigman2/quotes/202934861/composite AAPL +0.85% .
First, there’s technology that verifies whether remote workers are doing their work, he said. Then there are solutions designed to assess whether an employee is engaged, attentive or efficient, he said. These tend to be more invasive than technologies that simply check whether someone is logged in and working, Verdi said, and can raise “real privacy questions about employer-employee trust.”
A third category, consisting of technologies designed to assess and mitigate the risk of COVID-19 outbreaks, has risen in prominence as companies navigate a return to physical workplaces, Verdi said. This includes contact tracing to notify individuals that they might have been exposed to someone who has tested positive for the virus, some of which is done through apps that use Bluetooth to detect close proximity between mobile devices. It also includes symptom reporting and certification, where employees regularly answer a short list of questions through apps or online surveys to assess their COVID-19 risk, he said.
Other emerging COVID-19-related workplace innovations include wearables worn around employees’ necks to notify them when they’re in close proximity to a coworker, as well as heat-detection cameras to screen workers’ body temperatures, CNBC reported Monday .
“We’ve seen employers adopt new technologies in the wake of the pandemic in an effort to ensure that employees are staying safe and on task,” Verdi said. “We’ve also seen employers utilizing pre-pandemic technologies with increasing frequency, and this is a natural reaction to businesses seeking to ensure that remote workforces are doing their jobs and remaining timely in their work.”
At the same time, Verdi added, “employees are struggling with the challenges of remote work, and have every right to expect that employers take into account family and health and other obligations in the context of remote work.” While these technologies can provide useful data, he said, their benefits must be balanced against privacy risks and transparency demands about what information is being collected and used.
Many employees assume they have some level of privacy and don’t quite grasp the extent to which they’re being monitored, Ruettimann said. “They may be using their own devices — but if you’re on your company’s network, you’re being surveilled,” she said. “You give up any sort of right to privacy by logging into the network and accepting the terms and conditions.”
But contrary to what some white-collar workers might fear, there isn’t a human surveilling everything they do in real time. “It’s not ‘Paul Blart: Mall Cop’ watching you surf the internet,” she said. “It’s more about just capturing things. … Data storage is so cheap that we can capture voluminous amounts of data and go back as needed.”
Companies want to safeguard against corporate espionage and destructive behavior, she said, as well as keep troves of data that can be retroactively accessed during investigations into harassment or other misconduct. “For the most part, corporate professionals are just part of a large data-collection effort,” she said. “Then if something goes askew, people can go back into the data and figure out what’s going on.”
While Ruettimann said she believes employee surveillance is “generally excessive and bad,” it can also protect workers. Having a record of your actions can help protect you against potential false allegations of wrongdoing, she said; employee surveillance can also protect you and your company against cyberattacks. “It’s not necessarily all terrible,” she said.
Most surveillance of the U.S. workforce still happens in real time and in physical places of employment, Ruettimann said. In that sense, surveillance of remote workers during the pandemic is somewhat overstated, she argued.
“If you’re working at a pizza place, it’s very common to have [closed-circuit televisions] all over the pizza establishment, and in that way your boss is actually watching whether or not you’re going to the bathroom,” she said. “That’s the real bathroom surveillance.”
In fact, she suggested, essential workers still reporting to grocery stores, food-service jobs, franchise environments and health-care settings might be the most monitored workers of all. “These individuals working in brick-and-mortar establishments have fewer rights; fewer opportunities to express concerns around privacy,” she said. “In that way, the conversation around privacy is almost a privileged conversation.”
Randy, a 30-year-old inventory clerk for an e-commerce company who lives in Kent, Wash., told MarketWatch he undergoes a temperature check when he walks through the door at the start of his shift and must sanitize his hands. Whenever he steps out of his office into the open office, break room, conference room or warehouse, or ventures outside the building — during up to 40% of his shift — he is on camera. Members of the warehouse crew are on camera 100% of the time, he said.
“You try not to think about it,” said Randy, who asked that his last name be withheld. “You know it’s there, but you hope nothing ever comes of it — so you don’t necessarily want to draw attention to yourself.”
In the event of a potential COVID-19 outbreak, Randy added, his company’s corporate office will review video footage to see if any unmasked individual came within six feet of a person infected with the virus.
Randy said constant camera surveillance was a reality of multiple jobs he had held. But to hold down a job, he said, he needs to comply with his employer’s terms. “It does go too far, but that’s kind of the world we live in at this point,” he said. “Is it right? No. But I don’t have a way to generate income otherwise.”
By and large, employee privacy protections “are relatively few, and they’re kind of a patchwork,” said Pauline Kim, a Washington University School of Law professor who researches employee privacy and employment discrimination. State-level protections against employee surveillance vary, and there are no federal laws against it.
“Beyond that, there’s not a lot of restriction on what employers can do in the way of gathering information, particularly if they can make the argument that they have some sort of business need,” Kim said, absent some egregious showing of employer overreach that would violate the common-law privacy right.
Computer-monitoring software that takes periodic screenshots ? That would generally be considered legal even under most state laws that regulate monitoring, Kim said, as long as there was clear notice and the employee was aware and had accepted it was happening.
“The more notice that’s given to the employee, the more likely that it would be considered acceptable,” she said. MarketWatch has tips here on how to shield yourself from your employer’s gaze and minimize your professional risk.
While surveillance of remote employees has received substantial attention in recent months, Ruettimann predicted the conversation will die down eventually. Some companies have announced plans to let employees work from home indefinitely , but many others are pushing to return workers to the office, she said.
After all, Ruettimann added, “the best surveillance is your manager watching you in physical proximity.” “They feel like productivity is higher, performance will be better, and they can keep a closer eye on you,” she said.