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Employers are Tracking Remote Workers

Employers are Tracking Remote Workers

Anthony Mersino

August 27, 2022

9:33 AM

Summary: A growing number of employers are using productivity tracking software to monitor the activity of employees. This tracking of remote workers is invasive and demeaning. Employees risk being embarrassed for what is on their screen and worse, reduced pay based on the tracking tools. The practice reflects a lack of trust.

I was saddened and alarmed to see a NY Times article that discussed tracking remote workers. In The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score, Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram share some insights into the growing practice of tracking employee activities. (If you would rather listen than read, check out the NY Times Daily Podcast with Jodi Kantor).

The article and podcast describe the practices that many employers are using to monitor their employees. The tools are becoming more popular as more and more employees are tracking remote workers.

The tools are called productivity trackers and they run on the employee’s computer and monitor activity. This includes keystrokes and mouse movements. Some also take screenshots to record what the employee is viewing and others will use the web camera to capture the employee themselves.

The tools are called productivity trackers but as you will see below, I think they don’t come anywhere near measuring productivity.

This is a worrisome trend and one that I really hope fails. Let’s explore.

Why Are Employers Tracking Remote Workers?

I don’t know for sure why companies are tracking remote workers but I can make an educated guess. No, it isn’t that they just read Orwell’s 1984 and gleaned some best practices. This practice is about treating people as resources, plain and simple. It is about getting the best return on investment from those resources.

The shift to remote work left managers without the ability to keep an eye on people. And isn’t it true that when the cat is away, those resources may get distracted or slack off? Isn’t it basic human nature to not work unless compelled to do so, particularly if you are a Theory X manager?

So these companies created ways to track their remote employees and literally keep an eye on them. Managers of remote workers are now able to tell if employees are busy. Otherwise, what value is being added by the manager?

Some companies are using the monitoring tool as a requirement or bargaining chip for allowing employees to work remotely:

In June, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority told engineers and other employees they could work remotely one day a week if they agreed to full-time productivity monitoring.

— Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score

Yes, you read that correctly – employees can work from home one day a week if they permit full-time monitoring (100%) in and out of the office.

The practice reminds me of something I was told as a 17-year-old working in a pizza restaurant. I was told to “look busy” when the boss was around. “If you don’t have work, grab a towel and clean”.

Looking Busy is a Stupid Idea

If you work in a pizza restaurant, perhaps you should look busy. No one wants to glance over and see their waiter doom-scrolling while they wait to order their food or pay the bill. But the workers we are talking about aren’t in pizza kitchens.

Tracking employee productivity has already been popular for some manual workers. For example, workers packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse or delivering packages for UPS are already monitored.

In lower paying jobs, the monitoring is already ubiquitous: not just at Amazon, where the second-by-second measurements became notorious, but also for Kroger cashiers, UPS drivers and millions of others.

— Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score

The trend has spread from manual work to those in knowledge work. And it seems with the rise of remote work, these tools are becoming somewhat ubiquitous. Kantor says that 8 of 10 of the largest employers in the U.S. monitor their workers.

Eight of the 10 largest private U.S. employers track the productivity metrics of individual workers, many in real time, according to an examination by The New York Times.

— Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score

Whoa, wait a second. That is a lot of people!

Tracking the productivity level of knowledge workers is a stupid and grinch-like practice. The approach can only turn employees into mindless robots. It simply doesn’t work.

The potential negative consequences for employees are alarming.

At UnitedHealth Group, low keyboard activity can affect compensation and sap bonuses.

— Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score

Yikes! And WTF!?!

What Exactly is a Productivity Tracker?

So what are these productivity trackers and what do they do? Most trackers are tools that monitor keyboard strokes and mouse movements and snap occasional screenshots of what you are working on. They may be launched manually at the beginning of your workday or if you are using your employer’s computer, they may run automatically. In many cases, these trackers are running in the background and employees don’t even know it. Shout out to those 271,000 employees at JP Morgan Chase!

Upwork freelancers are subject to a time tracker that tracks productivity in 10-minute blocks of time. The application takes a screenshot at some random point in the 10-minute block. If a particular block of time includes a screenshot of something considered unproductive, the worker could try to justify it in order to get paid. More often the worker will simply delete or not submit that 10-minute block – which means they don’t get paid for it.

If you turn on your tracker and it took a screenshot of something you don’t want the client to see (like your facebook tab is visible in the browser, etc), you can delete the screenshot and it will not be counted as paid time. If you worked for almost 10min already and noticed it in the 9min mark, your entire 10min is wasted.

Sarah, Virtual Assistant

Turn off the tracker at your own risk:

[Carol Kraemer] and her co-workers could turn off their trackers and take breaks anytime, as long as they hit 40 hours a week, which the company logged in 10-minute chunks. During each of those intervals, at some moment they could never anticipate, cameras snapped shots of their faces and screens, creating timecards to verify whether they were working. Some bosses allowed a few “bad” timecards — showing interruptions, or no digital activity — according to interviews with two dozen current and former employees. Beyond that, any snapshot in which they had paused or momentarily stepped away could cost them 10 minutes of pay. Sometimes those cards were rejected; sometimes the workers, knowing the rules, didn’t submit them at all.

— Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score

So you have tracking software running in the background on your computer and that software determines things like, oh, how much you will get paid:

[Carol Kraemer noticed that] her first paychecks seemed low. Her new employer, which used extensive monitoring software on its all-remote workers, paid them only for the minutes when the system detected active work. Worse, Ms. Kraemer noticed that the software did not come close to capturing her labor. Offline work — doing math problems on paper, reading printouts, thinking — didn’t register and required approval as “manual time.” In managing the organization’s finances, Ms. Kraemer oversaw more than a dozen people, but mentoring them didn’t always leave a digital impression. If she forgot to turn on her time tracker, she had to appeal to be paid at all.

— Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score

The So-Called Productivity Trackers Force Tough Choices

tracking remote workers is like a ball and chain

These tools chain employees to their desks and can force some pretty tough choices. Like whether to sprint to the bathroom, hold it, or simply pee in a bottle, a practice that is reportedly commonplace for Amazon workers:

While the tracker was on, “you couldn’t choose those bathroom or coffee moments — you just had to wing it,” [Carol Kraemer] said.

— Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score

And God forbid you should have an illness, diarrhea, or a urinary tract infection (UTI):

I have a history of UTI and have to go to the bathroom often. When I go to the bathroom, I need to ask my partner to click the mouse for me so my activity score is not affected.

Sarah, Virtual Assistant

working 2 monitor screens v2

OK great, so if you have to use the bathroom you simply get your partner to click the mouse for you.

What happens if you don’t have a partner or a roommate available to click your mouse? Don’t worry! You can buy one of these automatic mouse-jiggling devices or build your own fake productivity tool with items laying around your home. Or if you are lucky enough to be looking after a toddler, they could work the mouse while you are away so that you still get paid.

Doesn’t that tell you how absurd these tools are if a toddler could work in your place?

This takes me back to growing up in Michigan and hearing stories about autoworkers going up north for the weekend. Their co-workers covered for them by punching their timecards in and out for their shifts so that they got paid.

What Determines Productivity When Tracking Remote Workers?

The idea that any of this measures productivity is absolutely ridiculous, as demonstrated by the toddler approach. I am somewhat shocked that there are managers and leaders in 2022 that think that productivity can be measured by random mouse movements and keyboard strokes.

The best that can be monitored is activity and that is not the same as productivity. The tools are measuring activity or lack of activity. And the consequences include lost pay and even lost jobs.

Now digital productivity monitoring is also spreading among white-collar jobs and roles that require graduate degrees. Many employees, whether working remotely or in person, are subject to trackers, scores, “idle” buttons, or just quiet, constantly accumulating records. Pauses can lead to penalties, from lost pay to lost jobs.

— Jodi Kantor and Arya Sundaram, The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score

Be careful what you measure and reward. For example, most trackers would give you positive scores for sending an email. Yes, that counts as productive time even though generating an email is possibly one of the most unproductive things that you might do in a day since it creates busy work for others.

Personally, working in a company that pays people to send emails sounds like hell. Activity is not the same as productivity as I pointed out in this related article. The rewards and punishment can lead to undesired outcomes as we saw at Wells Fargo.


Tracked Employees Are Punished for Thinking, Learning, and Sharing

These productivity tracking tools don’t and can’t recognize productivity in knowledge workers. Another absolutely stupid thing about the tracking approach is that employees are penalized for activities that would be considered productive and helpful to the company tracking remote workers.

If you were to spend time thinking about a challenge or problem, you could be penalized because the computer doesn’t register that as productive. Thinking is currently not something that can be measured. If you are a knowledge worker, isn’t thinking the most critical thing that you can do in a day?

Of course, measuring thinking could change if Elon Musk has his way. Musk founded Neuralink in 2016 with the goal of allowing a computer to interpret a person’s thoughts. I cannot imagine what the computer would report about my innermost thoughts. I am pretty sure no one would pay me for them.

How about learning something new – is that considered to be productive? No!

Picking up a book and reading about your topic would be measured as slacking off.

Googling to find an answer to a problem could also be considered unproductive. And God forbid if you have to use YouTube to crack a tough problem. Consider how frequently you search for an answer or watch a YouTube video to learn how to debug an Excel formula or resolve a tricky USB driver issue. Any use of YouTube could be considered unproductive.

Sometimes I need to research on Youtube how to solve a problem and my tracker (Time Doctor) detects it as unproductive time. It also detects Hootsuite, the tool I use for social post scheduler as unproductive time.

Sarah, Virtual Assistant

And don’t even think about helping others. If you were to mentor a co-worker by having a conversation, you would be penalized. I suppose if you somehow used Slack or chat to mentor them you might not get penalized. But how effective is that?

Frederick Winslow Taylor Lives!

If you are a fan of Frederick Taylor and Scientific Management, you probably applaud these new monitoring tools. You may recall that Taylor was famous for his stopwatch experiments back in the early 1900s. Taylor dissected manual labor, timed each step, and then recommended the most efficient way to do each step including the best tool to use.

For example, his analysis of coal shoveling led to a recommended specific shovel size and set standards for the one best way to shovel coal and how much should be expected of a coal shoveler. This approach is probably also the best way to shovel shit BTW. Which is what these tools inspire.

Taylor was one of the key thought leaders that established today’s management practices where managers are thinkers and employees are doers. Employees cost the company money. The manager’s job is to drive the productivity of those costly employees to get the most bang for the buck.

Reading about these tracking tools made me wonder if Frederick Taylor has somehow been reincarnated, something I didn’t believe possible until just now.

Lack of Trust is Why Employers are Tracking Remote Workers

The desire to track workers is all about a lack of trust. It is about employers treating people as resources or machines. It is about as inhumane as you can get. Remember the Agile Principle:

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

— The Principles Behind the Agile Manifesto

If you don’t trust an employee, why did you hire them?

Maybe This Was Inevitable

I recognize that my age and experience shape my perspective. Still, I bristle at the idea of being monitored.

Is it possible I am just stuck in the past? After all, this isn’t the first application that monitors people. Tracking is happening all the time:

  • We track our family members using their cell phone location
  • Our TV watching is monitored by the cable company
  • Google tracks our every search
  • Siri and Alexa are always listening in our homes
  • We have Ring cameras watching our front porches
  • There are thousands of cameras monitoring us in public and private places
  • Insurance companies track our location, speed, and driving patterns

(In case anyone is monitoring my work, I spent 4 hours writing this post of 2,316 words. 150 words were copy and pasted from NY Times).

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