Employee Surveillance . . . Really?

“Managers turn to surveillance software, always-on webcams to ensure employees are (really) working from home”

That’s the headline from Drew Harwell’s article last week in The Washington Post.*

According to a study by researchers at MIT, nearly half the U.S. labor force is working remotely in response to COVID-19. In the weeks since social-distancing, sheltering in place and other regulations have disrupted work, some companies have turned to technology to watch over their workers. 

“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,” Harwell continues.

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.

This and the other systems Harwell describes are nightmarish. Servant-leaders will avoid them if at all possible.

Indeed, servant-leaders in the workplace know:

  • People are not “working from home” now – they are responding to an international crisis. Staying home is not a perk or benefit at this time. Indeed, for many families – especially those with kids in school or loved ones who are sick – being stuck at home is a huge burden. 
  • Different people work differently. One size of work rules doesn’t fit all. Some people can be more productive in an hour at four in the morning than they can be stuck to their computer nine-to-five. Team members can maximize productivity by structuring their own days at home.
  • Accountability always works better when it is a function of consent. Whenever possible, agree on the rules. Don’t impose them. Remote work rules coming down from on high aren’t going to do anything to increase engagement, satisfaction or morale. Instead, they will destroy it.
  • The trust you give is the trust you get. Building a trusting team is a priority of servant-leaders.** The best way to win trust is to give trust. But nothing says “I don’t trust you” like monitoring keystrokes. If there is any benefit to such surveillance – which I doubt – it can’t be worth the cost.

What do you think about this new employee surveillance? Are you as opposed as I am?

Let us know.

As always, we appreciate your views. Thanks!


* Drew Harwell is a technology reporter covering artificial intelligence and the algorithms changing our lives. Here’s his full article, published April 30, 2020.

** Developing people, building a trusting team and achieving results are priorities of a servant-leader at work: “Servant Leadership – 3 Workplace Priorities”

Here’s one more on trust: “5 Ways Servant-Leaders Build and Keep Trust at Work”