The Insidious Threat of Telecommuters

A couple of weeks ago, upon the release of a study suggesting that people who work at home spend a lot of time not working but nonetheless are more productive than their office-bound colleagues, I argued that people who work at home don't goof off less, we just goof off differently. Not only is there probably no less non-work-related Web surfing/Twitter reading/Facebooking going on in the office, but people in offices (at least every office I've ever worked in) spend a lot of time doing things like talking to each other, which we home workers don't waste a moment on. In any case, The Wall Street Journal reports that bosses are not satisfied with the fact that their telecommuting employees are perfectly productive. Gripped by the suspicion that they might be slacking off, they're upping the surveillance:

These days, working from home is more like being in the office, with bosses developing new ways to make sure employees are on task. Some track projects and schedule meetings on shared calendars. Others require "virtual face time" via email, instant messaging or calls. And some, like Accurate Biometrics, monitor computer use of employees, both at home and in the office.

Gartner Inc., a Stamford, Conn., technology-research company, predicts use of computer security-monitoring programs will rise to 60% of employers by 2015, from fewer than 10% now. The systems are used mainly to secure sensitive data and comply with government rules, but they also generate lots of personal information on employees' online behavior. To avoid violating employees' privacy, employers should tell employees they're being monitored and track only business-related activities, attorneys say.

As Jen Doll at The Atlantic says, "You'd never accept this sort of privacy invasion and control from someone you were, say, married to or dating." But in the workplace, we've come to accept that bosses treat employees as though they were a bunch of scheming criminals just looking for the chance to get over on the company. We have no reason to believe you're a drug addict, but you're going to have to pee in this cup anyway, just to make sure you haven't taken a hit on a joint sometime in the last month. Sure, you wrote that excellent report and got it in on time, but we're going to install monitoring software on your computer anyway, just in case you might be tempted to check out TMZ during the day.

One thing that the management of these companies never seems to grasp is that when you treat your employees with suspicion and contempt, you get poorer work out of them. Their primary goal will be to keep their heads down and not get punished, not to produce excellent work. It may not be as instantly noticeable as a positive drug test, but it is almost inevitable.