The COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed both our personal and professional lives. Some of those trends are obvious and impossible to avoid, like the new normal of hybrid work (in which employees work partly in the office and partly remote). But some are less obvious—and a big one is the spike in employee monitoring practices. (Click here for a full-size view of the heat map above.)
You can understand why employers are interested in this technology. Many employees are now working from home, and managers have very little oversight on what workers are actually doing during paid time. But employee concerns are just as valid, since many employers are using surveillance software, also known as “bossware,” to do their watching for them. What these apps can track might be disturbing to many, and there are surprisingly few places where employers legally need to tell you about it.
The Surfshark study results shown above were compiled by scraping search-engine data for bossware searches around the world from early 2020 to March 2021. Based on that data, Sweden is the big winner, with 327.75 searches per million people. The US is second, though, with 242.82. Norway comes in third, at 186.30 searches per million.
If wondering what your employer can see using bossware is giving you the urge to take a Xanax bath, break out your rubber ducky. On Slack, for example, surveillance software can see private messages, private channels, and, of course, a complete history of everything you’ve ever Slacked to anyone on your corporate account. For Google Workspace users, your emails (even your drafts) are visible as well as anything you’ve uploaded or created in a Workspace app. The same goes for Microsoft Teams, except there even the calls you’ve made using Teams or its Microsoft 365 Business Voice extension are fair game, as is your location whenever you log into Teams. Some apps can take regular or on-demand screen shots of what’s on your computer, while others can take a quick snap of you using your webcam.
What might really disturb many employees is that there are so many places where employers are under no legal obligation to inform you they’re doing this kind of surveillance. Even Sauron had the decency to put his big, bloodshot eye where everyone could see it. But in the employee-monitoring game, an actual selling point of these apps is that your IT staff can install them on employees’ work computers—sometimes even personal PCs—without their knowledge.
If you think your employer is using monitoring software, you’ve still got several ways to protect yourself:
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Work when you’re supposed to work and only work earlier or later when you’ve informed your boss.
Keep your personal computer personal and your work computer only for work tasks.
Get a personal email account, and only use that for private correspondence. If you accidentally start typing a personal note using your business account, remember to delete the draft.
On your calendar, designate personal events as private or they’ll be visible.
If you use a VPN for internet access, get a personal service instead of using your company’s VPN.
For employers, take a deep breath, and realize sneaky usually isn’t the right approach. There’s relatively little harm in letting employees know that you need to be sure of what they’re working on during business hours. After all, you were already doing that back when everyone was in the office five days a week. And what your employees install and do on their work computers is definitely your business, since it’s your time, your hardware, and your data.
According to the Surfshark study, 48% of workers said that introducing monitoring software, especially without their knowledge or consent, would damage their relationship with both their company and manager. So maybe a little more Mister Rogers and a little less Mata Hari is a better long-term bet.