Remote Learning Is Prepping Kids For Lack of Work Privacy

[Extreme Dr. Forrester voice] I know who you are and I saw what you did.]

Stories like this have been coming out with some regularity since late March as schools across the country invest in some mix of digital tools to monitor students during online classes and physical equipment to track them and take their temperature when or if they’re actually on school grounds.

The same kind of thing is happening in the workplace, as employers ramp up their monitoring tools, ranging from thermal scanners to take temperatures as people enter the office to bluetooth distance tracking to facial recognition. HR managers are now fielding all sorts of questions that used to be outside their purview, including those related to privacy issues arising from the kind of data collection that’s happening.

How useful such tools might be in the prevention of spreading Covid-19 or other viruses is questionable, usually cited as not being as effective as wearing a mask and washing your hands. Adopting those tools sometimes seems more like theater designed to make it appear as if a school district is taking steps to mitigate transmission amid a pandemic than to actually do something. Unsurprisingly, the costly systems are more likely to be implemented by private schools than their public school counterparts.

Those tools are, though, preparing the children for the reality they’ll be facing in the workplace as well as much of the rest of the world.

As I wrote on Productivity Lost:

Monitoring methods include keystroke logging, wiretapping, GPS tracking and Internet monitoring, which includes surveillance of employees’ web surfing, email, instant messaging and interaction on social networking sites.

Essentially, anything anyone does on a corporate-owned machine – be it desktop computer or mobile device – can and will be monitored. It all stems from the notion, which is not completely incorrect even if it is overreaching, that everything someone does while at work should be directed toward the benefit of the employer. All time spent should be in service to the company and its stakeholders.

While occasional legal challenges crop up, most of the time the companies wind up just fine, to the point that many have begun installing software on personal mobile devices that allow employers to track both their physical and digital activities.

Much of that monitoring and tracking is being done in the name of productivity, just as the tracking being done of students is being done in the name of keeping kids engaged and seeing when they’re not. What should be viewed as a privacy nightmare involving children unable to provide consent is actually just a preview of what they’ll face when they’re adults in the workforce.

Just as there’s little evidence temperature checks will impact the spread of disease, there’s little evidence digital employee monitoring and tracking improves productivity. In fact, there are a number of studies showing actual or assumed tracking hinders productivity and reduces morale. That, of course, hasn’t stopped companies from getting those systems up and running, especially in the months since the pandemic drastically increased the number of people working from home.

While it’s been widely decried by many parents, in many ways remote learning is better preparing students for their future in the knowledge economy than the regular classroom settings they’d otherwise be in right now. Work, after all, doesn’t consist of moving from one room to the other every 50-odd minutes, checking in with friends you pass in the hallway in between those sessions. It’s sitting in front of your computer over a series of hours that seem to blend into one another, answering emails and sending digital documents.

It also seems to be preparing them for the fact that their activities and actions both physical and digital are going to be monitored, collected and analyzed by overseers they are accountable to but who themselves often face little in the way of accountability.

(featured image via Pixabay)

Employees Working From Home? Time to Invade Their Privacy

Employees can’t be trusted to be productive without monitoring.

With vast swaths of the country in lockdown as a protective measure to fight the Covid-19 outbreak, a much higher percentage of employees working from home, at least those who aren’t in the retail/manufacturing/gig/service industries who are unable to do so. That increase has also led to more and more employers buying and requiring workers to install monitoring software that tracks their digital activity.

The Ad Age story quotes executives who have taken this step because they’re concerned employees are “taking advantage” of their new working situations, fearful it seems that working from home will lead to all kinds of distractions.

These fears are generally focused on one or more of three areas:

  1. That employees are slacking off, essentially “stealing” productivity from the company
  2. That employees are simply being inefficient
  3. That employees are actively looking for other jobs any moment they’re not being watched

Let’s address each one in turn.

Get to Work, Slacker

Many of the main points in this argument were debunked by me two years ago, but the short version is this: It’s a false premise to assume that 1) time is inherently the employer’s, and 2) that it’s reasonable to ask workers to completely put aside their personal lives during work hours.

If someone needs to take a personal call, go for a walk around the block or otherwise stare off into space for a hot minute, that’s *good* for their productivity, not bad. Taking a break improves focus, clears out thinking and has many other benefits. All of those are effectively destroyed by keeping someone chained to their desk and always available.

That’s all true in general but it’s even more true in the current situation. So many people are working from home for the first time and, as an added wrinkle, also might have their young kids at home with them. That means not only are they adjusting to a brand new work environment and setup, but they have to occasionally help with e-learning setups, organize activities to keep young children occupied, answer random questions posed by toddler and even break up the kind of sibling scuffles that frequently pop up.

Monitoring software doesn’t allow for the kind of situational considerations that are part of the human experience.

Finding the Inefficiencies

This is, of the three, the most reasonable. Anything that can help identify where processes are broken or inefficient is a good thing.

The problem, then, is that there are much better ways to achieve this goal than through installing monitoring software on employee machines. Employers could, for example:

  • Listen to their workers when they offer suggestions
  • ….

Nope, that’s the big one. Listen to workers. If someone says it’s a problem that they have to get three unrelated department heads to sign off on a simple request form, delaying the timeline by days or weeks, take what they say seriously. If they tell you that having 28 people try to collaborate on a document is a path solely to insanity, take what they say seriously.

There’s a role for software to play in this, but it’s very limited, mostly because the “ideal” path and the “most efficient” path are rarely the same in an organization. Companies are weighed down by decisions made based on executive preference or lowest bidding vendor, so using those to mark out what an efficient process should look like is objectively an exercise in futility.

Testing the Waters

One of the examples of this situation identified in the story is software that sends up a flag when someone takes a certain combination of actions such as downloading client lists and printing a resume. That one-two-punch indicates a worker might be a flight risk and appropriate action can be taken.

OK, sure, but it overlooks the reality that IF SOMEONE IS LOOKING FOR OTHER WORK YOU HAVE A PROBLEM WITH EMPLOYEE RETENTION AND SATISFACTION.

Companies should probably have other mechanisms to identify these kinds of individuals, including plugged-in managers and supervisors as well as a culture that encourages genuine feedback.

It is, at its core, an employee engagement problem. It’s problematic, then, that only 34 percent of employees feel engaged at work, especially when you consider how closely engagement is tied to productivity.

Worrying about employees when they’re actively printing resumes is too late. You need to worry about employees from the moment they walk in the door, making sure that not only are they being compensated adequately but that they are feeling some level of satisfaction from their work, feel they are able to bring their best ideas to their projects and more.

That really is the crux of the situation: Activity/productivity monitoring software is a quick but inadequate solution to problems that could be handled and solved in much more constructive ways. As with most corporate wellness programs, they are one-size-fits-all packages being sold to purchasing managers who can more easily get these costs approved than push through comprehensive and meaningful reforms.

More than that, it’s just not cool to spy on your workers. That’s true in physical environments where cameras, digital keycards and other tools are used, and it’s true in the digital world as well.

Connected Devices Will Impact Productivity

There are two major threats to individual privacy identified in this story about the potential for connected devices to be used in some manner against the people who have brought them into their homes: 1) That every moment will be tracked and used to target a never-ending stream of ads and retail prompts based on individual activity, and 2) That the data gleaned from these devices will present big companies a huge competitive advantage over startups without access to that information.

The first is a huge problem in and of itself. But there are also substantial implications for the workers of the future.

Connected devices have been sold on the promise of making people’s lives easier. They can have their refrigerator tell them when they’re running low on sour cream, or have their toaster tell them how many carbs they’re eating on a weekly basis. It’s an extension of the idea that through mobile apps and wearable devices you can master your health by counting steps, monitoring heart rates and more.

As connected devices invade more and more of the home, they present a real threat to the autonomy of a growing remote workforce.

According to Upwork’s latest Future Workforce Report, more and more people are choosing to work outside of traditional offices Part of the allure is to escape the constant feeling of being monitored that comes with working in those offices. That sense comes from both having managers looking over your shoulder and how companies are monitoring keystrokes, digital activity and more.

The danger comes in how connected devices, with their constant monitoring and reporting of activity, can be used to track productivity. Say someone is working but wants to have a movie on in the background while writing the report that’s due the next day. If they have an Alexa on the kitchen counter that’s turned on it will hear that movie playing. There’s the potential, then, for Amazon to sell that user activity to the company the person is working for, allowing them to question why they’re watching a movie when they should be working.

While that seems bad, there’s a real possibility it could get worse. Someone’s network of devices could be reporting on how often they get up to go to the bathroom, or open the front door to take a walk. All of that can then be used by an employer against the employee, contractor or freelancer.

This isn’t paranoia. Or at least it’s not solely paranoia. Even numbers from three years ago show a massive amount of companies were already monitoring digital activity of their employees. That monitoring is used to spur employees to work more and faster, afraid of the repercussions of not being seen as fully committed to the job.

It’s an instance where data privacy is so terribly important. While companies may be on solid legal footing when it comes to monitoring of devices and activity while in the office, the lines get blurry if someone is using their own machine within the confines of their own home. And they get transparent when it comes to using third party data in a way that the employee doesn’t have access to and never explicitly consented to.

As with many things in the modern workplace, the consolidation of corporate ownership is particularly problematic. If the company making the connected device someone has in their home is a subsidiary of the company that person works for, the data isn’t even being sold, it’s being transferred via departmental memo. And the loser is the employee, who is being held to a standard of accountability that sees anything shy of “always on, always working” as a cheat of their employer.