Bossware: the ethics of monitoring remote workers
Editor Megan Ballantyne explores the use of new workplace technologies such as Bossware to monitor employee productivity in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Remote working has brought many positive innovations – it has allowed working parents to have more flexible schedules, needless travel expenses have been saved by using zoom calls, and it has also forced companies to modernise in a way that they have been capable of for a while, but have not had the incentive to do.
But with this fast-tracked program of modernisation, many companies have struggled with how they can monitor their workers as effectively as in-person. The simple answer is that, ethically, they are unlikely to be able to when people are working from within their own homes. This is not necessarily a bad thing, though. Remote workers are freer to work in a manner that suits their needs and preferences, which may increase productivity and worker satisfaction.
But some companies cannot accept relinquishing some control of their workers’ activities, and have implemented Bossware to mimic the control they have within an office – the key difference being that Bossware monitors workers within their own homes and on their own devices, in a setting many assume to be first and foremost private.
Bossware monitors workers within their own homes and on their own devices, in a setting many assume to be first and foremost private.
When Digital.com performed a survey of 1250 US employers in September 2021, it found that 60 per cent of employers with remote employees were using some form of work monitoring software – this is used most commonly to track which sites and applications employees were using during their workday. Of this group, nearly nine in ten said they had terminated workers as a result of such software.
This action may seem justified given the fact that among monitored employees, 53 per cent are spending three or more hours a day on non-work activities. But perfect ‘productivity’ is an impossible aspiration – remote workers may sometimes procrastinate by looking at social media or doing an online quiz, but even in an extremely well-monitored office, no one does an hour of work without looking out the window for 30 seconds or turning around to share a bit of gossip with their colleagues.
When students are learning how to study effectively, the number one thing teachers argue repeatedly is that you cannot work effectively for two hours straight, let alone eight hours. The popular ‘pomodoro’ study method stipulates that you should have two five-minute breaks every hour. These types of breaks add up during the day but, for many people, they are the best thing to increase their productivity in a healthy manner. And many people work outside of office hours so that they can do chores and errands throughout the day, or split up their workdays to fit family and friends into their schedules. It does not mean that they are not working, just that they might not be doing all their work within official office hours.
Even in an extremely well-monitored office, no one does an hour of work without looking out the window for 30 seconds or turning around to share a bit of gossip with their colleagues
Digital.com found that 14 per cent of remote employees were unaware that they were being monitored by their employer. But this does not communicate the full scope of these softwares’ problems. Of those who are aware they are being monitored, the complexities of the software are still easily misunderstood by workers – it is in companies’ interests to keep their employees in the dark about their own rights and how they use employee data. And even for those who are pretty well informed about their company’s use of Bossware, such software can monitor every worker minutely in a way that would simply be impossible in an office environment.
But when human productivity is measured in data, it is easy for employers to lose sight of the individual in the impossible pursuit of 100 per cent productivity. It is important to remember that, fundamentally, the pandemic has not made workers’ lives easier or better. Workers are not simply slacking off, they are struggling with the rising cost of living and dealing with personal tragedies caused by the pandemic, while rich business owners are making more profit.
Bossware will not pick up if someone is bereaved, it will just pick up that they are dropping behind on their work – and it does not offer a worker experiencing mental health issues the face-to-face support and personalised recovery plan they might need. Some employers may use Bossware in combination with these more intuitive methods. For many, though, it will be used as an easy justification for quickly firing workers who are struggling.
Article from print issue 733