As businesses increasingly become reliant on employee-monitoring software to help manage staff working from home during the pandemic, a growing number of workers will try to game these tracking systems for their own benefit, experts say.

By 2023, 10 percent of workers will seek to trick artificial intelligence-based metrics used to measure worker productivity, which companies in turn use to determine staff compensation, according to a February 2021 report from tech research firm Gartner Group.

“Organizations will face workers who seek to evade and overwhelm these tools in the interest of lower workloads, better pay, or simple spite,” Whit Andrews, an analyst and distinguished research vice president at Gartner, said in a separate report. “Workers are not fools — they will discover the gaps in such surveillance strategies swiftly.”

He added that some workers “will see more of a game to be won than a metric that management has a right to.”

Tobias Tullius photo

The abrupt shift to remote work last year following the global coronavirus outbreak forced businesses to scramble to ensure workers remained productive at home.

Still, employees are demonstrating that working from home doesn’t equate a drop in productivity, studies show. A Global Workplace Analytics (GWA) survey in March-April 2020 of 3,000 people working remotely during the pandemic found 73 percent were successful when working from home. At the same time, 86 percent felt “fully productive” and 76 percent want to continue working remotely at least 2.5 days per week.

However, some organizations find that work-monitoring platforms offer the best solution in ensuring oversight for employees working out of sight.

That’s leading to a boom in the employee-tracking industry.

Logging keyboard strokes

Global demand for workplace-monitoring software surged by 87 percent in April 2020 versus the monthly average prior to the pandemic, according to a Top10VPN analysis.

It doesn’t appear that demand will be waning anytime soon.

About 43 percent of companies worldwide have changed their remote work and flexibility polices since the outbreak in 2020, while 40 percent altered rules on offsite work schedules, according to Monster’s Future of Work 2021 study.

In addition, global spending on workplace-monitoring software is expected to reach $1.4 billion in 2027, according to market research firm Reports and Data.

“Many businesses are making a permanent shift to full- or part-time remote work, which can be both costly and require cultural changes,” Andrews said. “For management cultures that are accustomed to relying on direct observation of employee behavior, remote work strengthens the mandate to digitally monitor worker activity, in some cases via AI.”

To be sure, businesses were tapping the technology for office use well before the pandemic.

Through software and applications including collaboration tools, companies have been able to surveil employees through webcams, take screenshots of workers’ computers, log keyboard strokes and monitor e-mails in a bid to ensure workers are doing their job.

One monitoring platform, Sneek, features a “wall of faces” of employees at a company and automatically takes a photo of workers through their webcam every one to five minutes.

Such surveillance efforts have their detractors, especially among those being surveilled.

A growing number of workers who feel they are being spied on or evaluated through such monitoring programs are discovering ways to generate false or confusing data for their own benefit, according to Gartner’s Andrew.

One example of how workers can work the system can be found in the grocery industry, he said.

According to trade publication Supermarket News, almost half of all shoppers in the U.S. have purchased more groceries online since the Covid-19 pandemic struck last year. Fulfilling those orders are the responsibility of two classes of workers: pickers, who find the grocery items that customers order, and drivers who deliver the products.

One grocery store that Andrews declined to identify rates pickers on how fast they complete the order. In contrast, the drivers are judged by how well they deliver a customer’s grocery order. As a result, pickers horde popular items in an out-of-the-way cooler to be sure that the products are available when needed in order to maintain their high ratings.

Rigging the mouse

“There’s no effort to make sure that the right items are in the right order,” Andrews said. “Because you’re not watching all the way through, and the more impersonal you make that circumstance, the more you rely on the metric the less you rely on a sense of fellowship and shared endeavor. The only thing that you have to decide whether or not things are going well is your metric.”

Workpuls, a provider of employee-monitoring software, says some workers will go to “ridiculous” lengths to trick such systems.

It cites the example of workers attaching battery-operated toys to the mouse of their computers. As the toy moves, the mouse moves as well and the monitoring software records activity taking place.

“Therefore, it would seem like the employee has been doing something where in fact, they haven’t,” the company said on its website.

Worker-tracking programs work best when employees buy into their organization’s reasons for monitoring and don’t feel like their bosses are spying on them,  experts say. They also have to be careful when asking for access to an employee’s personal property like a cell phone or a laptop.

“Employee monitoring for the purpose of improving productivity is rife with ethical challenges. It can easily cross the creepy line and can create a toxic work culture and can land an organization in news articles decrying poor practices,” Gartner said in a another report.

Proper implementation of employee-monitoring programs and open communication with workers are key to avoiding upsetting staff to the point they feel a need to evade or trick these systems, experts say.

Jay Zweig, an employment-law attorney and partner with Ballard Spahr in Phoenix, Arizona, says transparency on how and why worker-tracking programs are being used is vital to protecting employee-employer trust.

“What’s very important in that regard is that employers need to have written communicated policies about what an employee’s expectations of privacy are when they’re performing their job,” he said.

Performance metrics alone may not tell the whole story, he added.

“The person looking at the metrics might not realize that perhaps the employee was on a reduced work schedule due to disability or medical leave or another type of schedule accommodation,” Zweig said. “It’s important that you marry the software metrics with the human side of what’s going on.”

To be sure, many parents are struggling to balance work and home life during the pandemic. Those struggles can include making sure their children are doing their classwork in remote or hybrid education models, he said.

“That can be a significant challenge, and you don’t really need monitoring software to see how difficult that can be,” Zweig said.

Teramind, another provider of worker-monitoring software, said that most employees understand that such tracking systems are equally designed for their benefit.

“I think it’s safe to say that the great majority of employees today fully understand the rationale behind employee monitoring and are happy to be a part of a company that employs tools like Teramind,” given the fact that such tools enable management to allow them to work from home,” said Eli Sutton, Teramind’s vice president of global operations, in a statement.

He added that Teramind’s business has surged since the coronavirus pandemic struck last year and the firm has increased its staff by 50 percent since the coronavirus crisis began.

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