'Employee surveillance' software is doing a roaring trade as suspicious bosses seek to keep a beady eye on their staff.
Along time ago in a newspaper office I once worked in, I had a colleague I'll call Dave. Dave loved action figures. And film posters. And coffee mugs with action figures or film stars on them. While most of us were on deadline, bashing our keyboards to fill acres of white space as the unrelenting second hand scrolled silently on, Dave would be bidding for his coveted trinkets on eBay.
There was an old-school culture back then: language that was not appropriate for the workplace — except perhaps if you worked on an oil rig — would regularly ricochet around the newsroom. Perhaps a colleague had discovered a rival had beaten them to a scoop, or a smug PR person had disavowed a juicy bit of information.
In Dave's case such imprecations meant, as often as not, that he had lost an auction rather than a story. That rare Iron Man figure (movie promo edition!) had been snagged by a more committed buyer. Dave, dear reader, would be disconsolate.
If Sam Naficy had been around, however, Dave would also probably have been fired.
Naficy is the chairman of Prodoscore, one of a series of companies that, in the work-from-home era, is doing spectacularly well in a dastardly field: employee surveillance. Its "productivity intelligence" software, which it sells to businesses, goes beyond counting keystrokes or tracking the wanderings of your mouse.
It monitors a bewildering array of tasks undertaken on company time. That includes checking emails, work documents, calendar appointments, the lot. If you use an internet-based phone service it transcribes every phone call too. You read that right.
Naturally all of this information is sent to your boss. Along with a daily productivity score. Scores are shared with the office too, so you can see how you and your colleagues compare.
Prodoscore, based in Irvine, California, ensures that everyone has their nose in everyone else's business, and this summer it reported a sixfold increase in sales since the start of the pandemic. What a time to be alive!
This type of software can reach creepy extremes.
A New York company, TransparentBusiness, sends screenshots from your computer to your line manager to show them what you are up to.
Hubstaff tracks the movements of staff via the GPS on their phones and not only provides a daily list of websites visited by workers but details of how long they lingered there.
Time Doctor turns your laptop camera against you, allowing it to take a photo of you every 10 minutes or so.
This is not a passing spasm of paranoia, a collective corporate freak-out that will subside once we all troop back into our offices.
Nicholas Cristakis, a social scientist at Yale University, reckons we won't get back to "normal" until 2024, once the coronavirus vaccine has reached enough of the population to make a difference and taking into account the slow readjustment to being at close quarters with strangers and colleagues.
Covid-19 has shifted the ground beneath us and things that were once de rigueur will not remain so — among them office work as we knew it. This is being seen most dramatically here in California.
The picture-sharing website Pinterest, for example, just paid US$90 million to break a contract it had signed for a vast office in San Francisco. Twitter, Facebook, Uber, Airbnb and countless others have said they won't reopen their offices until the summer at least, with some going as far as to say they will go fully remote.
In October the file-sharing service Dropbox announced it would become a "virtual-first" company, with most of its 2,300 employees working from home and a "cadence of in-person collaboration" at smaller "studios".
Which brings us back to the boom in snooping software. Jamie Woodcock, a senior lecturer at the Open University who specialises in work in the digital age, says the issue boiled down to trust — or a lack of it — and who is in control.
"A lot of this is driven by managers who are terrified about not being able to watch over workers," he says. "It's really about power: having power over workers in the workplace."
Companies keeping tabs on their workers is not new. Call-centre operators have long used software to track employees' calls. My wife used to work for a big American law firm that divided her day into six-minute slices, the better to track her precious billable hours.
Those tools, however, are now being applied across a swathe of industries. And they are far more powerful than they used to be, because these days we are all tethered in one way or another to the mothership: the internet.
The dangers here are many. For one, these tools often reduce one's entire day — eight or ten hours of work sprinkled with visits to Twitter and Spotify and chats around the (digital) watercooler — into a score, a single number that sums up one's value to an enterprise.
I don't know about you, but I, for one, am an artiste. I can't simply sit down and pump out this beautiful prose like some journalist cyborg. I have a "process". This tends to involve several trips to the kitchen, searching for snacks to unblock my brain. I also need to scroll through Twitter. Regularly.
I simply must wander into the garage — now my wife's office — with no plan other than to distract myself, and her, for a few minutes (much to her chagrin). Then I sit back down to stare at the cursor, blinking back at me. This column was composed in fits and starts, at an artichoke farm, at my parents' dining-room table and in a Boeing 737.
If we submit ourselves to being monitored every minute of every day, we are also building a case for our dismissal. Woodcock, who worked in a call centre to research a book on the industry, says: "We were constantly told, indirectly, that if they wanted to fire you, all they would have to do is look through your scores long enough to find enough mistakes. These things are a sword of Damocles hanging over our heads."
Of course companies are, broadly, within their rights to do as they please. Most contracts grant them latitude to snoop on you when you are using company equipment and on company time.
In most cases, however, it was a theoretical deal that workers struck. Covid has made it real, which is particularly scary given the pandemic's unique ability to cause not only people but also companies to sicken. Combine with corporate desperation the fact that your worth has been reduced to nothing more than neatly laid out numbers, graphs and charts, and what you have is a recipe for redundancies.
And just to lighten the mood: it is not entirely clear that these tools work. By injecting a sort of engineered paranoia, these efforts are designed to make us more productive. There are countless studies, however, that suggest they do the opposite. In general, people who are working under pressure and in fear do not perform well. Surveillance, in short, makes work suck. But it is here to stay.
Fifty per cent of the global workforce have been working remotely since the pandemic began (Deloitte).
Written by: Danny Fortson
© The Times of London