Illustration of a man sitting at a workdesk while a giant hand holds a magnifying glass over him.
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Why remote working is bad news for bad managers

1 Feb 2021

The shift to remote working has seen a surge of interest in employee surveillance tools. Elaine Burke explains why this workplace spyware is a bad idea.

Remote working is a difficult situation for bad managers. You know the type: freaked out by the prospect of employees working without direct supervision. It’s part micro-management, part distrust, and wholly uncomfortable to work under.

Unfortunately, the reason we’re all familiar with bad management is because it is so common. It’s among the most common reasons employees will leave a job, with one survey finding that 43pc of people would return to a job if their boss was replaced.

But in the world of remote working, what’s a bad manager to do? If you can’t physically see your team working, how can you believe that they are? Well, luckily for these managers, they can have their pick of the many dystopian-sounding employee surveillance tools out there. Unluckily, the employees will have to put up with this.

Some employee surveillance tools don’t even try to sound friendly to employees. From StaffCop to Controlio, there is a wide array of tools to turn managers into Big Brother. They offer features such as keystroke logging, website monitoring and snapping screenshots from employees’ workstations at set intervals. And these tools are on the rise.

Thanks to the remote working revolution, services that offer ways to monitor employees have seen a surge of interest. 2020 was peppered with reports on their growth. In April, ActivTrak and Time Doctor told Recode they’d seen significantly more interest from both new and returning customers during the pandemic. Hubstaff co-founder Dave Nevogt told the New York Times that trials of its software tripled from March up to May 2020, while CNBC reported on Prodoscore’s sixfold increase in interest from prospective customers and Teramind’s tripling of the same during the summer months.

This uptick has been tracked by industry analysts, too. Gartner’s Brian Kropp told Computerworld that, within the first month of remote working under Covid-19, “16pc of companies put new tracking software on the laptops of their remote employees”. By July, this had reached 26pc.

In all, the market for employee monitoring software is tipped to be worth $3.84bn in just a couple of years. But while these companies are revelling in widespread wins, team leaders might be the ones losing out.

‘By the end, I found myself trying to cheat the system altogether’

A person’s behaviour certainly changes under the pressure of being watched. I, for example, pride myself in being an above-average typist. But stick me on a Zoom call, sharing my screen as I type, and errors abound. The knowledge that I’m being watched completely throws me off my usual flow.

Yet these companies will report how their software motivates employees to be more productive, knowing that their every move will be tracked and graphed for their boss. And that certainly was the case for tech journalist Adam Satariano, who volunteered as tribute and reported on his experience being monitored by Hubstaff.

By week two, Satariano saw how the software was affecting his behaviour. “Each day, I logged in early because it was keeping a running clock of my activity. Knowing my online actions could be reviewed, I did not spend (as much) time reading about sports and rarely opened messaging apps on my laptop, nervous about a screenshot catching a private exchange.”

However, it didn’t take long for the spur of motivation to prick the wrong side of Satariano’s intent. “By the end, I found myself trying to cheat the Hubstaff system altogether,” he wrote in week three of his experiment.

Indeed, as Wired reports, anti-surveillance software is also experiencing a boom. Tech-savvy employees have found ways to skirt surveillance software with virtual machines, programmes that fake mouse movements and other hacks to make their digital presence felt while their physical self is up to other things. And the real irony is that these creative tech solutions look far more impressive than the box-ticking exercise of pleasing the productivity score.

This tendency toward retaliation from employees is the reason why many experts in this area recommend that any employee monitoring tools are introduced with the cooperation of employees. Some of these tools offer self-reporting options, and one employee told Recode that this made him more comfortable with the idea as a whole.

Dr Phoebe Moore, who is the primary investigator for an EU research project on workplace monitoring and surveillance in the digital era, proposes that businesses consult with employees on monitoring that is appropriate in a process of co-determination.

‘Bad management is a top reason for employees to leave a company, and feeling like you’re being spied on by a manager who doesn’t trust you is only going to accelerate that departure’

In the new era of widespread remote working, it has been touted that presenteeism is dead and that managing by results will finally get its time to shine. And this goes for managers, too.

For starters, all these tools offering detailed, granular details on employees’ activities are likely to overwhelm team leads with data. Is time spent reading lengthy daily data reports really time well spent? We might have to ask your productivity score about that.

As with all data-driven insights, this information is best put to use alongside a person with the intuition and creativity to turn graphs and charts into ideas and solutions. If your management style is a mere checklist of piecemeal tasks and hours logged, are you really offering any more than the automated tools can do without you? This bossware might just automate you out of a job.

But the ultimate risk is to your employee retention. In a UK survey, almost half (48pc) of workers said the introduction of employee monitoring software would damage their relationship with their manager. This rose to 62pc among 18 to 24-year-olds, indicating that the next generation of workers don’t find these next-generation technologies acceptable.

Remember: bad management is a top reason for employees to leave a company, and feeling like you’re being spied on by a manager who doesn’t trust you is only going to accelerate that departure. But the good news is, you might at least be able to watch it happening before your very own prying eyes.

A 2017 Guardian article on the growing phenomenon of workplace surveillance shared the story of an insurance franchise that decided to demonstrate the keyword scanning software it used on employees’ emails, and an email was promptly flagged by the system. “The demonstrator opened the email in front of a room full of peers to discover his best employee was plotting to move to another company.” One can imagine why.

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Elaine Burke
By Elaine Burke

Elaine Burke was editor of Silicon Republic until 2023, and is now the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. Elaine joined Silicon Republic in 2011 as a journalist covering gadgets, new media and tech jobs. She later served as managing editor before stepping up as editor in 2019. She comes from a background in publishing and is known for being particularly pernickety when it comes to spelling and grammar – earning her the nickname, Critical Red Pen.

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