Here’s how employers are using tech tools to keep a close watch on their remote workers

Here’s how employers are using tech tools to keep a close watch on their remote workers

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One benefit of the lockdown triggered by the coronavirus epidemic has been a renewed enthusiasm for working at home. Forced to let millions of employees work from home to avoid contagion, companies that had been hesitant about taking that step have concluded they can benefit from telecommuters, after all.

Companies from American Express and Facebook to Twitter and Zillow are now embracing a work-from-home culture, extending that option to employees even as confinement rules are lifted.

One of the main drivers behind this shift is the economic incentive. According to a survey by software maker Atlas VPN, monitoring a single employee working remotely costs about $7 a month, and having an employee work from home half the time can save an employer $11,000 a year in increased productivity, lower real estate costs and reduced absenteeism, according to Global Workplace Analytics, a consultant on workplace trends and strategies.

Before the Covid-19 pandemic, just 3.6% of U.S. workers regularly worked from home. But according to Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, many more U.S. workers could work remotely than actually do.

She cites a recent study by two University of Chicago economists in which they estimated that 37% of U.S. jobs could be done completely from home. Lister estimated that 56% of employees hold a job compatible, at least partially, with remote work. And employees have long been more enthusiastic than their bosses in working from home. Lister cites a survey indicating that 80% of employees would like to work from home at least part of the time. “Our prediction is that the longer people are required to work at home, the greater the adoption we will see when the dust settles,” she said. 

A recent survey conducted by CNBC among technology executives across a wide variety of industries indicates that while many employees may be heading back to offices in September, that is not because remote work has led to a decline in worker productivity. In fact, 48% of respondents to the CNBC Technology Executive Council survey for Q2 2020 said that team productivity had increased since the pandemic began. Forty percent said it had remained the same, while 12% cited a productivity decrease. 

The CNBC survey also found 72% of technology executives saying that team workloads had increased more and everyone was working harder. Firms are also ramping up remote-work resources, with 68% saying their remote capabilities were better than when the pandemic began, and 40% saying remote technology resources were “much better.” Twenty-five of the 146 members of the CNBC Technology Executive Council responded to this survey, which was conducted from June 3–15, 2020.

Keeping tabs on the untethered

Technology has made working from home easier, with widely adopted applications like Zoom and Slack enabling cooperation with co-workers and clients. Technology has also enabled managers to overcome their greatest objection to not having their employees in the office. “One of the biggest holdbacks of remote work is trust — managers simply don’t trust their people to work untethered,” said Lister. “They’re used to managing by counting butts in seats rather than by results. “

Companies such as ActiveTrak, Hivedesk,  Teramind, Time Doctor and WorkExaminer enable companies to track the activities of their employees by installing software on their computers. Most monitoring software will track keystrokes, email, file transfers, applications used and how much time the employee spends on each task. Most will take periodic screenshots to let managers know what is on the employee’s screen.

One of the biggest holdbacks of remote work is trust — managers simply don’t trust their people to work untethered. They’re used to managing by counting butts in seats rather than by results. “

Kate Lister

president of Global Workplace Analytics

“Organizations want to make sure that users working from home are actually being productive on company time,” said Eli Sutton, vice president of operations at Teramind, a six-year-old Miami-based company that sells monitoring software. During the pandemic the level of interest in Teramind has tripled, said Sutton.

In its promotional material, Teramind promises to monitor “all employee activity covering 12+ system objects, like web pages, applications, email, console commands, file transfers, instant messaging, social media, keystrokes, clipboard, searches, printing and even on-screen content in real time.” The company offers a “revealed agent” that is visible to the employee and a “hidden agent” that performs certain security functions.

Invasion of privacy?

If monitoring sounds invasive, it’s not limited to those working remotely. Employees in the U.S. don’t have many privacy rights. “When you’re on your office computer, you have no privacy at all,” said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. “Anything and everything you do is probably monitored by your boss.”

Maltby, a former director of employment rights at the ACLU, said the courts generally have supported the view that if you work on company equipment, your data belongs to the company. This sweeping view is based on the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986, drawn up at a time before desktop computers were common.

“Electronic communications in 1986 was the telephone.” Lewis notes that some monitoring systems let you log off the corporate network to perform personal tasks and log back on, but few employees remember to do that. Alternatively, employees can use a personal wireless device (cellphone) to assure that communication is private.

European privacy laws are more up to date and far more strict. Under the General Data Protection Regulations, adopted in 2016, individuals living in the European Union have far more control of their data, where it is stored and can even ask to have data removed if they disagree with its accuracy. One software vendor noted that by simply marking a document private, a worker in Europe can place it off limits to an employer — even on a company-owned device.

Maltby is pessimistic about tightening U.S. privacy laws to give employees more protection. He says he spent 20 years at the ACLU trying to get Congress to act. “If you take a poll, most people will say they care about privacy, but if you look in the average Congressman’s mailbox, there’s nothing about privacy,” said Maltby. “Constituent silence on issues of privacy is deafening.”

Managing with trust and empathy

The greatest challenge may be how to best manage remote workers. Rachel Welch, the chief operating officer of Atlas VPN, said managers “should go into remote work conditions with trust and empathy, not with fear and close monitoring.” Companies unaccustomed to remote workers often set strict work-from-home guidelines. But Welch warned, “This might lead to an authoritarian style of management, which puts a lot of pressure on the employees.” The best approach, says Lister of Global Workplace Analytics, is what management consultants have been advocating for decades: setting goals and managing by results.

The wrong approach to monitoring can have a profound effect on morale. Dustin (not his real name) is an IT manager at a midsized specialty printer. Before joining his current firm, he worked for more than a decade at another company. Although he worked from home a lot, he was loosely managed. When he joined his current employer a year ago, he discovered that he had to clock in and out on a virtual time clock and that his company-issued laptop was closely monitored (screen snapshots every 30 minutes, for example).

At his previous employer, Dustin says he took ownership of everything and worked as long as necessary to complete a task. Now, he said of the close supervision, “It doesn’t make me inclined to check something at 8 o’clock in the evening.”

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