When Your Boss Becomes Big Brother

We love a good paradox here at the Busyness Paradox so yesterday’s Computerworld headline, “The new normal: When work from home means the boss is watching,” caught my eye. Noting a 16% increase in the number of employers utilizing employee-tracking software in the first month of the pandemic alone, and considerably more since then, the article does indeed reveal a strange irony: the technology that lets you work without having your boss all up in your business is the very same technology that lets your boss get ALL up in your business. To be clear, we’re not talking about things like having access to employees’ inboxes or getting alerts when an office computer logs three hours on balloon-animal fetish sites in a single afternoon. Those ships sailed long ago. We’re talking about software that records your keystrokes, grabs screenshots and can access your camera and microphone, even while you’re sitting on your couch working from home. The author, Matthew Finnegan, deserves some praise for presenting both sides of the debate over whether employee monitoring has begun to cross a line in this era of Covid and widespread WFH (working from home). Letting those with a financial interest in keystroke-logging, screenshot-grabbing, webcam-snooping, audio-recording “bossware” tell their side in the face of blistering public opposition is a bit like holding an aluminum poll in a lightning storm. But it’s good to hear both sides of a debate, if for no other reason than to see what logical gymnastics the purveyors of bossware might engage in to justify their products. Inconveniently, they raise some valid points. While they acknowledge that maintaining or increasing productivity is the primary goal of their products, they’re not wrong when they say the potential for employee-tracking software to benefit employees exists. Some of these “side benefits” (yes, the CEO of ActivTrak actually described her product’s capacity to help employees as “side benefits”) include:

  • Finding and fixing bottlenecks that can make our jobs tedious and frustrating
  • Accountability, in the form of objective performance tracking, can help you get the recognition you deserve for your efforts, preventing the office schmooze from hogging all the credit (admittedly less of a benefit to you if you ARE the office schmooze)
  • Identifying effective strategies and “best practices” developed by employees so they can be more easily shared with coworkers
  • Giving managers a clear picture of which employees are tackling more than their fair share of the work, helping them prevent burnout by spreading the workload more equitably

There is actual evidence to support these claims, even the (wait for it…) paradoxical idea that employees are sometimes happier under these heightened levels of accountability. Some of it has even been published by your’s truly. But alas, this is not a real paradox because performance tracking and behavior tracking are not the same things. There’s a big difference, actually, and so this is where me and the bossware peddlers’ logic part ways. You’re paid to do a job, someone keeps track of whether you hold up your end of the bargain. That’s how work, you know…works. But if you choose to floss your teeth 15 times a day while doing that work, who cares? Other than your dentist, I mean. If your job is performed well and on time, why purchase expensive software to spy on the process? Where does management stop and voyeurism begin? Update: Seems this kind of bossware is becoming ever more “mainstream,” as discussed in in our April, 2021 post: Even our Jokes are Terrifying Windows into the Dark Side of Work.


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