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You’re Working From Home, but Your Company Is Still Watching You

Employers use software to take screenshots of workers’ computers and measure their productivity. You’re Working From Home, but Your Company Is Still Watching You

Chris Heuwetter never felt a need to monitor the employees of his Florida social-media marketing company. He could glance across his company’s 3,000-square-foot office and see them.

The coronavirus pandemic changed his thinking.

Weeks after employees began working from home in March, Mr. Heuwetter said he noticed that some staffers started logging on later in the mornings. Others were slow to respond to messages. Mr. Heuwetter says he understands working remotely requires a significant adjustment, but he became concerned.

So he required workers at his company, 98 Buck Social, to install a tool that takes computer screenshots every 10 minutes and records how much time they spend on certain activities.

“We realized we didn’t know what was going on,” he says. “We were just worried that we were losing productivity.”

Now that millions are suddenly doing their jobs at home as a result of the new coronavirus, more companies want to know how employees are spending their time. Some of them are relying on the same surveillance tools that have been used to monitor work in the office, and they don’t always disclose when the software is added to laptops remotely.

The technology provides managers with daily productivity scores for remote workers or detailed reports on which tasks consume their days. Other tools are designed to catch employees who might be more tempted to download files from the company or violate security rules.

Companies also use such surveillance and analytics tools to determine everything from who is influential at a company to which teams tend to be most productive. Advocates say such technology can help companies assess high and low performers and better allocate resources, while critics warn the tools might not be nuanced enough to render balanced judgments.

“What’s happening today is just an acceleration of what’s been happening,” says Brian Foster, senior vice president of product management at MobileIron Inc., a device-management and security company.

Makers of workplace-monitoring products say they have logged an increase in orders since the coronavirus altered life. Rita Selvaggi, chief executive of employee-monitoring software ActivTrak, says more than 1,000 new companies have signed up to use her company’s tool in recent weeks.

“It’s been a little insane,” she says. The companies, she says, range from law firms to insurance companies to banks—businesses that “maybe hadn’t had remote employees before, and they were super anxious about it.”

At Teramind, whose technology can give employers a live look at employees’ computer screens or recordings of videos of their activities, inquiries have tripled since mid-March, and about a third of the company’s 2,000 clients have requested additional licenses to track more users, says Eli Sutton, vice president of global operations.

SiteTech Systems, a property-valuation company based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., went remote on March 16, just days after President Trump declared a national emergency, and rolled out ActivTrak on employees’ laptops. The initial goal, says Trevor Greene, director of business development, was tracking working hours for the company’s 30-odd hourly employees. The tool, he notes, allows employees to work more flexible schedules and still have their hours be accounted for, something he says is particularly important for parents with children at home.

“We understand this is an unprecedented, atypical situation,” he says.

“This is not a witch hunt to try and find the guy who spends 20 minutes a day on the news,” he says. But he also thinks the tool—which the company uses to track web browsing and time spent on work-related apps, such as Excel—will pay longer-term dividends.

“We’re able to get a lot more granular insights into how much time they’re spending on individual tasks,” Mr. Greene says. Each staffer has access to their own data, he says, and can see how their own productivity levels fluctuate.

The roughly 300 staffers at Anequim, an Omaha, Neb.-based company that handles maintenance and billing issues for apartment complexes and other property managers, are all remote workers across the U.S. and Mexico. But now that children and other family members are home during the workday with them, many employees have new distractions and challenges, says Gwenn Aspen, the company’s president.

The new monitoring software Anequim uses, Hubstaff, can be a conversation starter during the pandemic that helps managers figure out which employees are struggling and find a solution, she says. “If you see in the software that people really aren’t being productive, you can have discussions about how to make them more productive.”

Employers have wide legal latitude to use tracking tools, though the products can test employees’ threshold for privacy concerns. Ifeoma Ajunwa, an assistant professor at Cornell University’s ILR School, formerly known as the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, says oversurveillance of a workforce can turn counterproductive.

“It becomes more about the worker being stressed out about surveillance or paying too much attention to the surveillance rather than getting the work done,” Dr. Ajunwa says.

Many employees have a heightened sense that their performance on the job matters even more now, with more than 22 million Americans seeking unemployment benefits. “Frankly, employees already have an incentive to be productive, just by mere fact of wanting to keep their jobs,” she says.

In Florida, Mr. Heuwetter, of the social-media marketing company, explained his rationale for installing the Hubstaff tracking system last month in an email to employees and discussed it in a virtual meeting. A few staffers pushed back, and one called it spyware, he says.

“There was some tension when we first rolled it out,” he says. “I didn’t see any eye rolls, but I felt the eyes roll.” Some employees asked whether Mr. Heuwetter could now see their files or web-search history during nonworking hours. He explained that he couldn’t. The software stops tracking activity when employees hit a timer to pause or finish work for the day.

Productivity has noticeably increased in recent weeks, Mr. Heuwetter says. He can now identify staffers who seem overworked and those who are especially productive and might deserve a pay raise. He is also paying attention to which people might require on-the-job coaching in the future.

“I’m in love with it,” Mr. Heuwetter says of the tool. “I’m never going back.”


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