Does your boss know you’re reading this article right now?
If you are one of the thousands of Australians who made a rapid shift to working from home this year and are currently logged on, shouldn’t you be working?
This is company time, after all.
For an increasing number of Australian workers, it is now the norm to have every movement tracked: what websites you visit; how long you spend on social media; how many keystrokes you do each minute and even when you go to the bathroom.
Sales of software that monitors employees working remotely have surged since the coronavirus pandemic was declared, with some companies reporting a 300 per cent increase in customers in Australia in the last two months.
Tech and employment law experts are now sounding the warning, arguing it amounts to a “digital cage” and that Australian regulations are woefully out of date.
The rise and rise of employee monitoring
Employee monitoring software has emerged in recent years as faster tech collided with a desire for more flexible working arrangements.
There are now dozens of companies offering software boasting a variety of tools to track the productivity of remote staff.
It works like this: software is installed on the worker’s computer and the data is fed back to the boss. Common features include:
- Recording when you clock in and out
- Recording how long you spend on a website or other program
- Taking screenshots of what you are viewing at regular intervals
- Tracking your location by installing a complementary app on your phone
- The ability to log in and view your computer live
- The ability to monitor emails and search for key words
Some programs then crunch this data to give a “productivity score” at the end of a shift.
Many online reviews from bosses are glowing.
“The software gives me a peek into the day of a user that needs monitoring,” wrote one person from an oil and energy company.
“It monitors for key website usage and will let you know if your personnel are looking for other jobs,” wrote another.
Others say it’s helpful to monitor the hours a freelance contractor spends on a project. And in some cases it is used to train staff. One review reads:
“For example, a user spends four hours working on 100 items. The user was not using a series of hot keys programmed into our software. We took the video and showed a before and after. After, the user worked 130 items in four hours.”
Many of the companies are based in the US and have told the ABC they are seeing a surge in interest in Australia this year.
One company, Hubstaff, said trials in Australia were up an average of 200 per cent since March 15 to now sit at 429 clients.
Data shows trials spiked on March 23 — the day National Cabinet implemented widespread stage 1 restrictions that limited the size of gatherings and required businesses like pubs, cafes and cinemas to close.
“We feel like these changes may be here for good,” a Hubstaff spokesperson said of the uptake.
“Once a person can prove to their manager or boss that work can be done efficiently and effectively from home or remotely, it’s hard to justify the expense of the office, the commute, and the effects these things have on the lives of employees.”
Another company, which offers a program called Controlio, said its uptake around the globe had tripled this year, while a group called Veriato said it had seen “dramatic adoption”.
“We see the same trend in Australia: 2-3 times more free trials, new account registrations, sales — everything. Everything has risen,” Controlio product manager Alexander Makhanev said.
‘All about discipline and domination’
Jathan Sadowski is a research fellow in the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University and has a blunt assessment of this type of software.
“I don’t want to mince words here — these are technologies of discipline and domination … they are ways of exerting power over employees,” he said.
“A lot of the productivity tools, as they’re called, have the ability to be installed secretly onto computers.
“Others are very upfront about it, because that’s part of the disciplinary power, knowing that a screenshot is being taken, that you are being watched and tracked and recorded.”
The technology skews towards white-collar industries and grew in media and design workplaces, Dr Sadowski said, but he expected more administration, finance and university employers to adopt it soon.
His key criticism is that the technology is designed and marketed with bosses in mind, and the rights and experiences of the worker are ignored.
He said it stems from a demand for ever-greater profits, productivity and efficiency where employees are seen as assets, not people.
And he doesn’t give any credence to the idea that workers are on company time and therefore it’s no different to being watched by a boss in an office.
“I don’t think it holds up because we’re talking about a difference in both degree and type,” he said.
“That’s exactly what these tools are, they’re a way to turn that kind of white-collar office work into that kind of digital cage.”
Mr Makhanev from Controlio said he understood the concerns, but added that software like his allowed the employee to switch it off.
“So it has no issue with privacy because if you are doing something for your job you should start this program, just to prove that you’re online … but you can start and stop manually,” he said.
‘A strong need for law reform’
Philosophical differences aside, there remain concerns around how these programs are regulated — particularly given many companies are based overseas.
Mr Makhanev said Controlio, which is based in New York, stored a user’s data for six months and didn’t sell the information to any third party.
He added it was only accessible by the customer and not even Controlio staff could see it.
Yet Maurice Blackburn employment lawyer Kamal Farouque warns Australian employers to tread carefully.
“There’s certainly Commonwealth laws which regulate the transfer and retention of private information in overseas locations, and so employers would have to be very cautious that they are complying with those requirements,” he said.
“The use of that information might, in a practical sense, be beyond the oversight and regulation of Australian law.”
More broadly, he said Australian regulations hadn’t kept pace with this sort of employee-monitoring technology.
“Categorically, definitely not,” he said.
Mr Farouque said there was a “complicated web” of federal and state laws around employee monitoring and many were not specifically directed at this sort of software.
He added that employers should carefully consider the particular enterprise agreements of their staff before bringing in new tracking software.
“There is a really strong need for law reform in this area,” he said.
“Particularly in a situation where now the line between work and home is being blurred.
“That trend is likely to obviously continue even post COVID-19.”