Employee monitoring software became the new normal during COVID-19. It seems workers are stuck with it

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In early 2020, as offices emptied and employees set up laptops on kitchen tables to work from home, the way managers kept tabs on white-collar workers underwent an abrupt change as well.

Bosses used to counting the number of empty desks, or gauging the volume of keyboard clatter, now had to rely on video calls and tiny green “active” icons in workplace chat programs.

In response, many employers splashed out on sophisticated kinds of spyware to claw back some oversight.

“Employee monitoring software” became the new normal, logging keystrokes and mouse movement, capturing screenshots, tracking location, and even activating webcams and microphones.

At the same time, workers were dreaming up creative new ways to evade the software’s all-seeing eye.

From this to the tiny green or yellow activity status icon on Microsoft Teams.
 (Getty: View Pictures)

Now, as workers return to the office, demand for employee tracking “bossware” remains high, its makers say.

Surveys of employers in white-collar industries show that even returned office workers will be subject to these new tools.

What was introduced in the crisis of the pandemic, as a short-term remedy for lockdowns and working from home (WFH), has quietly become the “new normal” for many Australian workplaces.

A game of cat-and-mouse jiggler

For many workers, the surveillance software came out of nowhere.

The abrupt appearance of spyware in many workplaces can be seen in the sudden popularity of covert devices designed to evade this surveillance.

Before the pandemic, “mouse jigglers” were niche gadgets used by police and security agencies to keep seized computers from logging out and requiring a password to access.

Mouse jigglers for sale on eBay
An array of mouse jigglers for sale on eBay.(Supplied: eBay)

Plugged into a laptop’s USB port, the jiggler randomly moves the mouse cursor, faking activity when there’s no-one there.

When the pandemic hit, sales boomed among WFH employees.

In the last two years, James Franklin, a young Melbourne software engineer, has mailed 5,000 jigglers to customers all over the country — mostly to employees of “large enterprises”, he says.

Often, he’s had to upgrade the devices to evade an employers’ latest methods of detecting and blocking them.

It’s been a game of cat-and-mouse jiggler.

“Unbelievable demand is the best way to describe it,” he said.

And mouse jigglers aren’t the only trick for evading the software.

In July last year, a Californian mum’s video about a WFH hack went viral on TikTok.

A woman beside a computer with a mouse resting on a box
TikTok influencer Leah Ova.(Supplied: TikTok)

Leah told how her computer set her status to “away” whenever she stopped moving her cursor for more than a few seconds, so she had placed a small vibrating device under the mouse.

“It’s called a mouse mover … so you can go to the bathroom, free from paranoia.”

Others picked up the story and shared their tips, from free downloads of mouse-mimicking software to YouTube videos that are intended to play on a phone screen, with an optical mouse resting on top. The movement of the lines in the video makes the cursor move.

“A lot of people have reached out on TikTok,” Leah told the ABC.

“There were a lot of people going, ‘Oh, my gosh, I can’t believe I haven’t heard of this before, send me the link.'”

Tracking software sales are up — and staying up

On the other side of the world, in New York, EfficientLab makes and sells an employee surveillance software called Controlio that’s widely used in Australia.

It has “hundreds” of Australian clients, said sales manager Moath Galeb.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, there was already a lot of companies looking into monitoring software, but it wasn’t such an important feature,” he said.

“But the pandemic forced many people to work remotely and the companies started to look into employee monitoring software more seriously.”

An online dashboard showing active time and productivity score for a worker
Managers can track employees’ productivity scores on a realtime dashboard.(Supplied: Controlio)

In Australia, as in other countries, the number of Controlio clients has increased “two or three times” with the pandemic.

This increase was to be expected — but what surprised even Mr Galeb was that demand has remained strong in recent months.

“They’re getting these insights into how people get their work done,” he said.

The most popular features for employers, he said, track employee “active time” to generate a “productivity score”.

Managers view these statistics through an online dashboard.

Advocates say this is a way of looking after employees, rather than spying on them.

Bosses can see who is “working too many hours”, Mr Galeb said.

“Depending on the data, or the insights that you receive, you get to build this picture of who is doing more and doing less.”

Nothing new for blue-collar workers

But those being monitored are likely to see things a little differently. 

Ultimately, how the software is used depends on what power bosses have over their workers.

For the increasing number of people in insecure, casualised work, these tools appear less than benign.

Workers wearing yellow and orange safety vests walk down through the huge warehouse made up of dozens of aisles.
Australia’s first Amazon fulfillment centre, located in Dandenong on the outskirts of Melbourne.(AAP: Revere Agency)

In an August 2020 submission to a NSW senate committee investigating the impact of technological change on the future of work, the United Workers Union featured the story of a call centre worker who had been working remotely during the pandemic. 

One day, the employer informed the man that monitoring software had detected his apparent absence for a 45-minute period two weeks earlier.

The submission reads:

Unable to remember exactly what he was doing that particular day, the matter was escalated to senior management who demanded to know exactly where he physically was during this time. This 45-minute break in surveillance caused considerable grief and anxiety for the company. A perceived productivity loss of $27 (the worker’s hourly rate) resulted in several meetings involving members of upper management, formal letters of correspondence, and a written warning delivered to the worker.

There were many stories like this one, said Lauren Kelly, who wrote the submission.

“The software is sold as a tool of productivity and efficiency, but really it’s about surveillance and control,” she said.

“I find it very unlikely it would result in management asking somebody to slow down and do less work.”

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