WASHINGTON — Despite evidence that working from home has not diminished U.S. productivity during the pandemic, employers are increasingly turning to monitoring software that can track workers’ keystrokes, log active hours, take regular screenshots and even activate a web camera.
And many companies may be using such tracking systems without workers’ knowledge.
Gartner, a technology research and consulting firm, estimates that 60% of large corporations now employ monitoring software, double the share of early last year.
Teramind, a Miami-based provider of employee-monitoring software, said that before the pandemic, about 70% of its sales came from companies concerned about security and 30% from those focused on worker productivity. That balance has since flipped, said Eli Sutton, Teramind’s vice president of operations.
“They want to make sure productivity stays high. It’s essentially become the new norm,” Sutton said, noting that Teramind’s sales tripled early in the pandemic and have not slowed.
Most surveys and economic reports show U.S. productivity did not suffer when American workers began doing their jobs from home. During the pandemic, Americans on average spent 40% of their work hours at home, compared with 5% in February 2020.
Yet U.S. productivity growth since the health crisis has run at more than double the rate it had in the decade before the spread of COVID-19 and surge of remote work.
And for more than 85% of employers, work-from-home efficiency met or exceeded their expectations, with half of these companies saying it has been “substantially” or “hugely” better, according to research work by economists at Stanford and the University of Chicago.
Many companies justify the surveillance on the grounds that it helps them improve employees’ performance. Elizabeth Harz, chief executive of InterGuard, said her firm’s monitoring tools can help managers identify burnout, overwork and tasks where people may be getting stuck.
“A category that started more as perhaps the Big Brother notion is evolving to be much more positive, transparent and helpful to both employers and employees,” she said.
But Brian Kropp, Gartner’s chief of human resource research who has been surveying companies, said that “most employers have not told their employees they’re doing this, which actually creates a real problem.”
ExpressVPN, in a recent study with Pollfish, found that 1 in 5 employers aren’t likely to tell employees about installing monitoring software.
“There is a significant gap between what employers are actively monitoring and what employees think their employers are monitoring,” said the virtual private network service.
When the pandemic shut down the Atlanta offices of Floyd County Productions last year, Jennifer Garcia suddenly found herself working full-time from home.
She and her co-workers were notified in May 2020 that Floyd, an animation studio, was employing a new app to facilitate remote work and that it was being loaded onto work computers.
Garcia, an IT systems specialist, said she wasn’t happy when she learned that the software could track employee activity and take screenshots without alerting workers. So she took extra precautions when looking at personal emails or other private material on her work computer. In April, Garcia quit after nearly 10 years with the studio, in part because she didn’t trust how the company might use the new software applications.
“Because I have more technical knowledge, I was able to set up a system where I could switch very quickly between different computers and not be slowed down,” said Garcia, 39, who now works as a software engineer for another firm in Atlanta.
“But I can see how if you’re not as technically inclined or maybe you don’t have an extra computer at home that you could use for personal stuff, you’re just kind of subject to the whims of your employer.”