Ask David Heinemeier Hansson, the cofounder and CTO of Basecamp, how he feels about companies that use software to surveil their remote workers, and you’ll probably hear a few expletives.
As The Washington Post, NPR, and The New York Times have reported, computer monitoring software products such as Interguard and Time Doctor have flourished during the coronavirus pandemic as companies try to keep tabs on far-flung workers. Once installed, these programs can track what websites employees are visiting, measure mouse movements, and even monitor keystrokes. Count digital monitoring of employees as yet another existing work trend accelerated by COVID-19.
Although Hansson is one of the loudest voices in favor of remote work, he didn’t want it to happen like this. “If companies are truly interested in having their workers be more productive, they should leave them the hell alone,” he says in an interview.
Hansson may be onto something. While digital monitoring is clearly an invasion of privacy—a necessary one, according to the companies that offer such software—some academic research shows that it may be counterproductive, echoing what remote work advocates say is common sense. Tracking employees through their computers, especially in an indiscriminate way, risks creating new distractions, sinking employee morale, and increasing turnover. Without better ways of measuring employee output, companies might only be bringing toxic work environments home.
Inputs and outputs
Brad Miller, the CEO of Awareness Technologies, the company behind Interguard, says monitoring software’s critics should try to understand where office-based companies are coming from. For managers who are used to walking past their employees’ desks, monitoring software restores some access to what their workers are up to.
David Heinemeier Hansson
If companies are truly interested in having their workers be more productive, they should leave them the hell alone.”
“There is a reason why we have offices. It’s not by accident,” Miller says. “There is a reason we have managers and supervisors: so they can manage and supervise people that are sitting generally in front of them in the office.”
Interguard’s monitoring goes deeper than surface-level supervision, though. The software can take continuous screenshots of employees’ computers, producing a video of everything they’re doing. It can also monitor for specific keywords on employees’ screens, whether it’s to ferret out harassment, to catch mishandling of confidential information, or just to flag when an employee visits a job search website.
Miller acknowledges that these tools could be abused (“Just like you have bad employees, you have bad managers,” he says), but he stresses that most companies aren’t looking at the specifics of what their employees are doing. Most managers are just interested in the broad strokes, such as how much time employees spend in work-related apps. Interguard, to that end, can assign employees a score based on the type of software they’re using and websites they’re visiting throughout the day.
“What they’re looking for is general information: Let me know, thumbs up, thumbs down, is this guy generally working the hours he’s supposed to, and is he generally productive?” Miller says. “If the answer is ‘no,’ you might want to drill down further and see what’s going on.”
That prospect might be alluring to managers who suddenly can’t see what their employees are up to, but Hansson says it’s a backward approach to remote work. Instead of monitoring when people are at their desks or how much time they spend in certain programs, managers should instead look at the quality and quantity of work employees are putting out.
There is a reason why we have offices. It’s not by accident.”
“A manager that’s only able to monitor inputs is a shitty manager,” Hansson says. “Good managers measure outputs, whether that happens from the office or from home.”
Miller counters that some lines of work, such as customer service or insurance claim processing, just aren’t conducive to being measured based on output, but Hansson doesn’t buy that argument either. If anything, he says, “highly prescribed” jobs such as data entry or customer support are the easiest thing to monitor. As long as employees are meeting their quotas and not making mistakes, he says, managers shouldn’t care if they’re also spending part of their workday on Facebook or watching YouTube videos.
“I think the root cause here is that a lot of managers are deeply insecure about whether employees are going to rip them off if they stop swinging the whip,” Hansson says. “Why do you have a whip in the first place?”
There is some evidence that less is more when it comes to surveillance software.
In 2017, research led by Baylor University forecast workers’ likelihood of quitting their jobs based on surveys. They found that monitoring software correlated with greater employee tension and less job satisfaction, indicating higher turnover intent. “[O]ur study suggests that just because organizations can electronically monitor employee behavior, it doesn’t mean that they should do so,” the researchers wrote.
A 2019 survey, by researchers at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland, sought specifically to measure the unintended consequences of internet monitoring software, also through surveys. Their research suggests that while surveillance slightly increases employees’ motivation to earn rewards or avoid punishment, it can significantly reduce their intrinsic work motivation, which in turn could harm creativity. More importantly, the researchers found that employees were less willing to go above and beyond for the company when they knew their internet activity was being monitored.
“In other words, even though internet monitoring is effective to reduce employees’ cyberloafing behavior, it does not necessarily lead to positive effects on the organization” because it can affect performance in other ways, the researchers wrote.
If you start from a stance that you don’t trust people, then I think you’ve already lost the battle.”
Even research that takes a more positive view of monitoring software suggests using it with restraint. A survey of Sri Lankan workers by the local University of Moratuwa, for instance, found that job satisfaction didn’t decrease when companies used monitoring software, but only if the company was forthright about its use and if employees felt that it was necessary to improve the quality of their work. Viraj Samaranayake, one of the researchers for the study, says employees are less amenable to having their activity tracked on sites such as Facebook.
“If it is an invasion of privacy . . . [employees] didn’t accept it,” says Samaranayake, who is now an IT industry consultant.
All of this underscores what remote work advocates say is common sense: People do their best work when they feel that they’re being treated well, rather than being regarded with suspicion by default.
“If you start from a stance that you don’t trust people, then I think you’ve already lost the battle,” says Amir Salihefendic, the founder and CEO of Doist, an all-remote company that develops the task management software Todoist.
Toward a better culture
This is easy for someone like Salihefendic to say. Over the years, Doist has put a lot of effort into creating a healthy remote work culture. Employees are well-compensated, and the company stresses that no one should work more than eight hours a day on whatever schedule they choose. Doist also discourages weekend work for everyone but customer support agents, who get equivalent days off during the week to compensate.
“If you treat people well, and you give them good perks and a good salary, most people will try to do a good job,” Salihefendic says.
If you treat people well, and you give them good perks and a good salary, most people will try to do a good job.”
Companies such as Doist and Basecamp also benefit from having all the tools they need for productive remote work. Both companies are in the business of making collection software, which they in turn use themselves, and they benefit from other tools that are geared toward software development, such as Github.
If there’s a sympathetic view for companies that use surveillance software, it’s that they’re being thrown into an entirely new way of working and being forced to make sense of myriad remote work solutions. Of course, not every company cares about treating their employees well and compensating them fairly—in which case, surveillance software is just a symptom of larger problems—but for those that do, constant monitoring is a convenient stopgap.
Over time, though, those companies would be wise to wean themselves off and find other ways to measure employee productivity. It might seem difficult at first, but as Hansson says, there’s always a way.
“The whole premise of employment is to produce or service something,” he says. “It’s not to sit around and look busy.”