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Your Boss Is Watching You: Work-From-Home Boom Leads To More Surveillance


OK, I get it. It's hard not to get distracted while working from home, staring at your computers. It's so full of shiny objects. You know, like cat videos, Facebook, TikTok. Employers want to make sure remote workers stay on task, so some companies are using software to track the activity of their employees. And as NPR's Bobby Allyn reports, some workers say this violates their privacy.

BOBBY ALLYN, BYLINE: A woman got a staff-wide email from her employer after she'd been working from her Brooklyn apartment for about two weeks. She didn't want NPR to use her name out of fear she'd lose her job. But the email said everyone needs to immediately download some new software on their computer called Hubstaff.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Which would track your mouse, your keyboard, your passwords, and take screenshots of your desktop.

ALLYN: She and her colleagues just didn't see this coming.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: There's five of us and we always came to work, always came on time. Like, there was no reason to start location tracking us.

ALLYN: She works at an e-commerce firm and we confirmed it. She shared emails from the company saying the tracking software would improve productivity and efficiency while working from home. In Minnesota, a woman who works in marketing shared a similar story. She also spoke to us anonymously over worries her employer would retaliate. Her company has started using software called Time Doctor.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: If you're idle for a few minutes, you're in the bathroom or whatever, a pop-up will kind of come up and say, you have 60 seconds to start working again or we're going to pause your time.

ALLYN: That meant she was penalized just for stepping away from her computer for a little bit.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: After talking to a co-worker for a few minutes, and I feel like crap. I feel like I'm not trusted. I feel ashamed of myself, like I shouldn't have done that. Maybe I should have worked harder. I should have been at my desk.

ALLYN: Critics call this kind of software tattle-ware, to which Brad Miller responds...

BRAD MILLER: If you're not working or doing something wrong, then I guess it will tattle on you (laughter). But I don't think that's really how companies who are buying it think of it.

ALLYN: Brad Miller runs Awareness Technologies. Like Hubstaff, he's seen business triple since the pandemic, with more people working from home. It sells software to companies that logs how employees are spending their time and gives each person a productivity score based on their computer use.

MILLER: Are they generally active on programs and websites that I would consider productive, like Excel, PowerPoint, Word, email, as opposed to YouTube or Facebook?

ALLYN: For bosses, keeping up with worker productivity has always been a give-and-take. In the office, it's easy to just look and see if someone's doing their job. Miller says this new technology is letting them do the same thing.

MILLER: Your people know what's happening, then everybody will act better (laughter), you know, than they might otherwise because we all act better when someone's watching.

ALISON GREEN: Some people will work harder in the short term if they know that they'll be yelled at if they don't. But we don't generally encourage managers to rule by fear because it's not effective in the long term.

ALLYN: That's Alison Green. She writes the syndicated advice column Ask A Manager. She's been inundated with questions from workers who feel icky about their bosses keeping tabs on their keystrokes and how many emails they send a day.

GREEN: And then there's the lower-tech version of that, which is people whose managers are asking them to stay on video all day long so they can watch over them every minute of the day, which is very intrusive.

ALLYN: Intrusive? Maybe. But legal? Probably. In fact, in some states, firms don't even have to tell their employees they're using the technology. Back in Brooklyn, the woman with the e-commerce startup says the software has really made things tough for her and her colleagues.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: If anything, I think it really destroyed morale for everyone. And everyone has since kind of taken a step back and said, all right, if this is how they're going to treat us, like, why go the extra mile? Because clearly it doesn't matter to them.

ALLYN: Rather than download the software on her computer, she opted out. She's gone on unpaid leave until the office reopens. But the experience of being watched by her employer has sent her looking for another job. Bobby Allyn, NPR News, San Francisco. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bobby Allyn is a business reporter at NPR based in San Francisco. He covers technology and how Silicon Valley's largest companies are transforming how we live and reshaping society.