Always-on webcams, virtual “water coolers,” constant monitoring: Is the tech industry’s new dream for remote work actually a nightmare?
By Drew Harwell
When the coronavirus shuttered the Kansas headquarters of the High Plains Journal, an agricultural trade paper for farmers and ranchers across the Midwest, digital marketing director James Luce decided to replicate the office experience entirely online.
Employees were told to create a digital avatar and spend their workday in a virtual office, replete with chat room cubicles and a gossip-ready “water cooler.” They were also instructed to keep their home webcams and microphones on and at the ready, so a spontaneous face-to-face chat was always only a click away.
Luce believes the software, by the San Francisco tech startup Pragli, is the future of remote work. But not everyone is so smitten. One older employee who has struggled to adapt — barging clumsily into other people’s video conversations or awkwardly lingering in someone’s “room” after a meeting adjourned — recently changed her avatar’s face to show it shedding a single tear.
“We have no shyness now at this point,” Luce said. “It’s weirdly brought us a little closer together.”
In the weeks since social distancing lockdowns abruptly scattered the American workforce, businesses across the country have scrambled to find ways to keep their employees in line, packing their social calendars and tracking their productivity to ensure they’re telling the truth about working from home.
Thousands of companies now use monitoring software to record employees’ Web browsing and active work hours, dispatching the kinds of tools built for corporate offices into workers’ phones, computers, and homes. But they have also sought to watch over the workers themselves, mandating always-on webcam rules, scheduling thrice-daily check-ins and inundating workers with not-so-optional company happy hours, game nights and lunchtime chats.
Company leaders say the systems are built to boost productivity and make the quiet isolation of remote work more chipper, connected and fun. But some workers said all of this new corporate surveillance has further blurred the lines between their work and personal lives, amping up their stress and exhaustion at a time when few feel they have the standing to push back.
David Heinemeier Hansson, co-founder of the remote-work-software firm Basecamp, said companies are increasingly subjecting workers to closer supervision due to a fundamental distrust that they’ll stay motivated on their own. The virus lockdowns, he added, have also led some managers to frame this monitoring in the New Age language of social gathering, in hopes of eliding over the fact that workers are being watched.
“What people crave is human connection. These are the crumbs of human connection,” he said. “You don’t end up extracting better, deeper, more creative work by subjecting people to ever harsher measures of surveillance.”
He’s been working from home for eight days because of coronavirus. How has it gone? For columnist Geoffrey A. Fowler, tech has been a blessing and a curse while he works at home. How has it been for other workers? (Jonathan Baran/The Washington Post)
Nearly half the U.S. labor force is now working from home, according to a study by MIT researchers in April. And many employees are probably working longer and more sporadic hours than ever before: NordVPN Teams, which runs virtual private networks for businesses, said in March it had seen working time in the United States climb from eight to 11 hours a day since the stay-at-home orders began.
A growing cottage industry of what some managers call “tattleware” now caters to company leaders wanting some way to peer over workers’ shoulders and confirm their productivity. Several time-tracking and employee-monitoring companies, including ActivTrak, Hubstaff, Time Doctor and Teramind, told The Washington Post they have seen their customer base and revenue soar since the pandemic pushed many companies remote.
Several companies allow managers to regularly capture images of workers’ screens and list employees by who is actively working and their hours worked over the previous seven days.
One system, InterGuard, can be installed in a hidden way on workers’ computers and creates a minute-by-minute timeline of every app and website they view, categorizing each as “productive” or “unproductive” and ranking workers by their “productivity score.” The system alerts managers if workers do or say something suspicious: In a demo of the software shown to The Post, the words “job,” “client” and “file” were all flagged, just in case employees were looking elsewhere for work.
InterGuard’s system can also record all of the workers’ emails, instant messages and keystrokes, and takes pictures of workers’ screens as frequently as every five seconds, which managers can review as they please. “You could literally watch a movie of what that person did,” said Brad Miller, chief executive of the system’s Connecticut-based parent company, Awareness Technologies.
Business is booming for their subscription-based software, Miller said: Hundreds of companies a week, three times their normal interest, are now asking about using the employee surveillance tools. He called it “financially irresponsible” for companies not to keep a close eye on their employees’ daily work and said managers “feel completely entitled to know what their workers are doing” if they’re allowed to log in from home.
“It’s silly to say, ‘I just trust them all,’ and close my eyes and hope for the best,” he said. Some workers have grimaced at the surveillance, he added, but most should have nothing to hide: “If you’re uncomfortable with me confirming the obvious [about your work], what does that say about your motives?”
Alison Green, whose popular “Ask a Manager” blog serves as a workplace advice column and sounding board, said she’s heard from a rush of housebound workers stressed out about their bosses’ increasing demands.
Many said they’re already facing incredible anxiety over how their job responsibilities will change, whether their companies will have to lay off workers or cut wages, or even whether their industry will survive. But they are hesitant to speak up about the constant monitoring, for fear that any criticism could lead them to join the more than 30 million Americans who have filed for unemployment aid since mid-March.
“It’s really demoralizing to feel like you’ve done good work for a company, maybe for years, and have a solid, reliable track record, and they’re treating you as if you’re going to spend your day drinking beer and watching YouTube,” Green said. “People don’t work well under that kind of scrutiny, even in the best of times.”
A digital-marketing worker in Tennessee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity so as not to be punished by her boss, said the aggressive amount of check-ins — via emails, calls, text messages and Zoom video calls — has left her team feeling “incredibly stressed out.”
“They’re just checking in constantly. Every meeting is, ‘What are you working on, exactly?’” she said. “I worked all weekend and woke up to an email this morning asking for everything I did last week.”
Not all systems portray themselves as the work police, and some, like Pragli, suggest they can use always-on webcams and microphones to help bring workers closer together.
Pragli executives argue that emails and Slack messages, the traditional lifeblood of office communication, are socially unfulfilling: efficient but soulless, and powerless to combat the distractions and loneliness of working from home. In a company blog post last month, co-founder Doug Safreno wrote about how Pragli was born from his yearning for human contact, and how he believed features such as a frictionless video chat system could help “create that sense of togetherness.”
“In an office, I would see other people at the water cooler. I could look up and see other people around me working. I passively heard people moving around in the office,” he wrote. “I knew I was part of a team working toward a shared mission.”
A happier workforce, they argue, is ultimately more productive, and much of Pragli’s infrastructure appears designed to maximize work output. The app’s default setting automatically sends users an alert at 9 a.m.: “Time to go to work!”
Pragli’s system measures employees’ keyboard and mouse usage to assess whether they’re actively working — any more than 15 seconds can shift a worker from ‘active’ to ‘idle’ — and allows anyone to instantly start a video conversation by clicking on another person’s face, similar to swinging by their desk in a real-world office.
For that reason, Pragli recommends users keep their webcams and microphones on at all times; users can also connect their calendars and music playlists, so their co-workers know what they’re doing and listening to round-the-clock. Workers can also hop into specialized virtual rooms whenever they like, including a “water cooler” for workplace chitchat and a “silent room” for workers who don’t talk but leave their microphones on, to convey the kind of ambient background noise one might hear in a coffee shop.
Pragli co-founder Vivek Nair, who said user activity has exploded 20 times over since February, said the company is working on a mobile app for users who have asked about conducting virtual meetings while on a walk. They are also developing a facial-recognition feature that could display a worker’s real-world emotion on their virtual avatar’s face; a beta version of the feature currently works only if the person smiles.
In a Pragli office, workers’ virtual avatars are lined up in a grid and viewable at all times. But another start-up, Sneek, takes that idea even further, uploading pictures of workers’ faces taken through their webcam as often as every minute for their colleagues to easily see.
A worker can click on their co-worker’s face to start talking, knowing they were just at their desk. The service also allows anyone to instantly send a photo of their co-worker to an open Slack channel: Del Currie, Sneek’s co-founder, said this “sneeksnap” command is great for when an employee does “something silly,” like pick their nose.
Currie said the periodic photos were built to help remote teams feel a sense of teamwork and closeness over the Web. He knows some people are skeptical but says the system can be more humane than email and other methods of workplace communication.
“These other things eat up so much of your mental space because you’ve got work dinging you all the time in your Slack channels,” Currie said. “Those things are probably more invasive than having a picture snapped of you now and again, really.”
This new wave of digitally mandated corporate camaraderie is quickly burning some workers out, said Green, who has heard from dozens of employees feeling socially fatigued and unable to say no, lest they be painted as an outcast. One respondent told her they were overwhelmed with Slack social-support channels, Zoom call “fun” challenges and chain emails about quarantine tips and recipes, writing, “I have more meetings now than I ever had in the office, and this is while also juggling a full workload.”
There are some signs that all of this tech-enabled social monitoring is hitting a wall. The video-chat service Zoom recently removed an “attention tracking” setting, which alerted a call host when a participant was focused elsewhere, following public outcry about how invasive and creepy the feature seemed.
But some employees are registering their feelings in more subtle ways. At the High Plains Journal, one woman working from home with four kids gave her Pragli avatar a shock of white hair. And in meetings, when workers click the “Celebrate” button to fire off a burst of virtual confetti, Luce said it’s now almost always done sarcastically.
Bettye Young, an account executive at the journal who spends most of her day on the phone with clients, said the move to Pragli meant she had a whole other thing to watch. If she’s in another room of her home in Dodge City, Kan., she can sometimes hear Luce, her supervisor, start talking through her computer, asking where she went.
But she’s also found some ways to make this new world work for her. In the mornings, she likes to chat with her co-worker, and she’s taken to expressing herself by changing her avatar’s clothes a few times every week. For one recent outfit, she chose a blue top with a single image of a skull.