It took me 31 minutes and nine seconds to complete a recent article from The New York Times.
I know that because the publication used specialized software to track my activity, registering clicks, keystrokes and the amount of time my computer ran idle. While it doesn’t normally take me so long to read a piece, the Times kept the meter running when I took a break for some standard morning rituals: a shower, a smoothie, a switch of the laundry.
The simulated surveillance was part of a recent investigation into “the worker productivity score,” and a way for the Times to display the digital stress that millions of employees now experience every day. More employees are being monitored than ever before, in a surprisingly candid, Big Brother-bid by executives to rank colleagues against each other and build cases for who deserves to be paid more…or less.
According to the Times, “Eight of the 10 largest private U.S. employers track the productivity metrics of individual workers, many in real time…Many employees, whether working remotely or in person, are subject to trackers, scores, ‘idle’ buttons, or just quiet, constantly accumulating records.”
This sort of inspection has been commonplace along assembly lines since the early 20th century, but has steadily oozed into other industries, and these days, appears to defy the level of income; no matter what you do, companies are investing are funds and manpower to make sure you’re doing as much of it as humanly possible. According to a Harvard Business Review report, the tracking trend exploded in the early days of quarantine and WFH, as “global demand for employee monitoring software more than doubled” and “searches for ‘how to monitor employees working from home’ increased by 1,705%.”
Spooky? Definitely. But managers aren’t particularly shy about broadcasting their preference for tracking. In the Times deep-dive, a man who installs monitoring systems for various firms succinctly explained their rationale: “If we’re going to give up on bringing people back to the office, we’re not going to give up on managing productivity.” It’s a popular point of view; so much money is now flowing into software companies that track employees that “performance management” has emerged as a high-growth sector in its own right. Yes, watching employees do their business is becoming a booming business.
The stories this era has wrought are insane. From programs that randomly take photos of employees through their computer screens throughout the day (making bathroom breaks a legitimate risk), to hollowed-out paychecks on account of “too much idle time,” to all sorts of other gizmos — like GPS tracking, or smart watches that collect blood pressure data — employers are effectively telling employees that they don’t trust them to do their jobs. What’s so puzzling, though, is why these employers are convinced that point systems and intimidation will lead to greater concentration and motivation in the workplace.
On the contrary, recent research suggests that when workers feel stripped of their agency, it’s rare that they become robotic task-rabbits. In fact, HBR discovered that “monitored employees were substantially more likely to take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage workplace property, steal office equipment, and purposefully work at a slow pace, among other rule-breaking behaviors.” The publication even conducted a study in which workers who were told they would be monitored for a task were found to be more likely to “cheat” than those who didn’t know they were being monitored.