Working from home is turning your boss into big brother

The pandemic in the U.S. has forced many companies to close their offices and offer work-from-home arrangements for their staff, and some businesses are taking employee tracking to the extreme. 

This week, NPR reported that one Brooklyn-based worker was asked to install mouse tracking software on her personal computer and a GPS location service on her phone that will keep track of exactly what she does and where she goes during the day. That new company policy encouraged her to take a leave of absence and to search for another job.  

A Minnesota woman also reported to NPR that her company takes random video downloads of employee’s screens as they work and even uses the computer’s webcam to snap and download pictures of the employee during the day. 

The use of monitoring software for remote employees has increased dramatically, but the trend has revealed several important questions about employee privacy and the legality of tracking remote staff. 

Is employee monitoring okay?

Employee privacy

The concern about privacy is clear: requiring stringent employee tracking, especially on their personal computers, may open the door to normalizing this level of oversight, and that could lead to even more intrusive workplace surveillance for staff that works remotely.

Brad Miller, CEO of Awareness Technologies, a software product built to help companies keep track of everything that employees do on their computers, said that business for the software has tripled since the Coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S. and forced the new work-from-home culture, and argues that people act differently when they are being watched. 

“I think if people know it’s happening, then people will act better than they would otherwise, because we all act better when someone is watching,” he told NPR. 

The Brooklyn worker, however, represents the downside well. Stringent monitoring could hurt employee morale and overall productivity, and may even encourage staff to look for jobs elsewhere. 

Is it legal?

There are not many legal privacy protections for employees who work remotely, though some states, as well as unions, have enacted regulations that govern how closely employees can be watched. 

While the U.S. Constitution protects against unreasonable searches and seizures, protecting employee’s privacy using company resouces generally falls outside of that protection. 

The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse says that employee monitoring is generally okay “as long as your employer has a business-related reason”, which gives businesses a lot of latitude to keep track of their remote employees. 

Commonly, employers who monitor their workforce use software to take screenshots of the computer screen, log keystrokes, track mouse movements and count idle time away from the computer. Idle time is when the mouse isn’t moving and the keyboard is not being used. Most employers can also read emails and instant messages sent and received by staff.  

Although the popularity of employee tracking software is relatively new because of the pandemic, the investment into these software tools may encourage companies to continue using them even after the pandemic has passed and staff members return to the office.