I Spy, Workplace Surveillance: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

The demand for workplace surveillance software thrived after the pandemic shuttered everyone in their homes.

Two years later, we’re starting to see the results.

It could be as innocuous as a ticking clock or as invasive as webcam access, but employers are enacting measures to track their employees at home and in the office. The success of this technology isn’t dwindling as some people return to the office, which sparks a further ethical debate.

How much workplace surveillance is too much?

Business Leaders Speak Out

“What you can’t measure, you can’t really manage,” says Yanis Mellata, the co-founder and CEO of kosy. Business leaders like Mellata see employee tracking as an essential business component but are careful not to infringe on privacy.

He cites mistrust, resentment, and the safety of personal documents as critical areas where employees might respond negatively to tracking software. “To avoid this,” Mellata told us, “employees should be kept informed and actively involved in the implementation of such technology.”

Still, the good outweighs the bad. Some benefits to tracking, he says, are understanding long-term productivity patterns, effective budgeting, and efficiency.

Business leader Rhett Stubbendeck, the CPCU and CEO of LeverageRx wants to protect privacy while still monitoring productivity. “Surveillance of work from home employees is necessary,” he told us, “just not enough that it doesn’t cause any mistrust among the employees.”

Stubbendeck uses time tracking to categorize billable and non-billable hours during business hours. He draws the line at tracking all of an employee’s computer activity, such as the apps they use or the websites they visit.

Does Workplace Surveillance Promote Productivity?

The novel nature of this surveillance software makes it difficult to find the line, but not for these business professionals.

Luka Juretic, the Director of Marketing for BuzzLogic, studied the effects of workplace surveillance at his company. Although BuzzLogic implemented surveillance measures during the pandemic, they ultimately chose to remove their tracking software in December 2021.

“The thing we found interesting is that the people who had other tabs open, be it music or a person who played poker while working, had the same if not better results than the others who focused only on their work,” says Juretic. Since removing the tracker, Juretic has noticed an increase in productivity.

For entrepreneur Steve Wilson, invasive workplace surveillance is his cue to look for another job. “It’s very much over if a corporation utilizes such measures to determine success or worth,” says Wilson, the founder of Bankdash. “It’s a trust issue,” says Wilson.

What Can This Technology Look Like?

Workplace surveillance software varies in form, from tattleware — which monitors keystrokes and mouse clicks — to emotion-analyzing software — which analyzes emotions based on facial expressions. Some of the leading brands include Veriato, Hubstaff, and Teramind.

According to Veriato, an employee is only productive for two hours and 53 minutes in an eight-hour workday. While that number may be jarring, it seems more employers are investing in time-tracking rather than advocating for a three-hour work day.

Veriato tracks employee productivity, attendance, and idle vs. active time. They market themselves as compatible with hybrid, work-from-home, and in-office work, suggesting that surveillance measures will grow in prominence rather than being a relic of pandemic life. They charge $14.92 per user per month.

Hubstaff screenshots an employee’s computer throughout the workday, sometimes every five minutes. For each screenshot, Hubstaff assesses a productivity ranking out of 100%. They also issue a daily productivity report card. Their services are comparable to Veriato, charging $12.50 per user per month.

Teramind markets itself for employee monitoring and insider threat protection, which might explain why it is the most expensive, coming in at $21 per user per month.

Micromanaging and the Future of the Workforce

J.S. Nelson, a law professor in business ethics who splits her time between Harvard and Villanova, has been studying the impact of workplace surveillance. Professor Nelson sees an increase in surveillance as people return to in-office work, not a decrease. “As some employees start to return to the office, new surveillance systems can monitor facial expressions to gauge emotional reactions, and heat maps can track employees’ movement within a building,” cautions Professor Nelson.

With workplace surveillance solidifying itself as a permanent fixture of work life, Nelson and other skeptics fear the long-term consequences. “Their abuse is poisoning the dynamics of the workplace at exactly the time when we need the workplace instead to change positively in so many ways,” she says.

Some employees and managers see a connection between contemporary workplace surveillance practices and micromanaging. Micromanaging has been linked to “low employee morale, high staff turnover, and reduction of productivity,” according to a study conducted by Sandra K. Collins for the National Library of Medicine.

A recent study commissioned by the Washington Center for Equitable Growth found that “Workplace surveillance fundamentally shifts the dynamics of power in the workplace in favor of firms in ways that harm workers and drive inequitable growth.” According to their research, surveillance enables illegal discrimination, hampers worker organizing, and leads to constant stress for workers who can be fired at any time.”

These surveillance methods will continue to evolve, and it’s still too soon to know whether surveillance makes for a happier and more productive workplace or exactly the opposite. Some of these technologies lean more towards Michel Foucault’s wisdom on surveillance or the plot of a science fiction movie, but employee monitoring isn’t going anywhere any time soon.

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This article was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.


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Justin McDevitt is a playwright and essayist from New York City. His latest play HAUNT ME had its first public reading at Theater for the New City in September. He is a contributor for RUE MORGUE where he lends a queer eye to horror cinema in his column STAB ME GENTLY.