Corporate technology at home; balancing privacy and productivity

Corporate technology at home.
Managing from home

My webcam is covered with a googly eye, but I’ve seen band aids, sparkly butterfly stickers, and purpose-made spyholes with sliding covers. For millennials and Gen-Zs, the idea of someone on the other side of the camera of every device we own is something of a given, to say nothing of the security of our personal data. For us, invasion of personal privacy by internet giants via our technology has been something to adapt to rather than eradicate.

But the pandemic has pushed many more of us to consider how closely we are being watched in a new sphere. Forced to work from home, many of us have brought corporate technology into our homes for the first time. And with many hailing ‘the death of the office’, it may be here for some time.

The supposed death of the office brings some benefits: less wasted time – both on the commute and at people’s desks, improved employee retention, and company savings on office space. Contrary to Boris Johnson’s belief that working from home is a ‘skiver’s paradise’, a Stanford study found that workers at home were 13% more productive than those at the office. Home working expert, Dr. Nicholas Bloom, sees the transition to working from home as a positive (and permanent) change.

Inevitably, it’s a balance of pros and cons. Along with the camaraderie and after-work drinks, the physical office space fosters trust between managers and employees. Having one’s team close at hand makes for easy communication and supervision. The sudden jump to working from home will have meant a significant change for managers especially, giving them a crash course in remote management. I suspect not all will have risen to the challenge.

Strong management is more important than ever. In his podcast interview with Martin Tripp, Sandeep Saujani talks freely about the need to develop trust and allow workers autonomy, while also developing a really clear performance management framework where everyone understands what their role in the team is. He also expects that when the team does get together in the future, it will be much less about “moving projects forward and updates” and is more likely to be “highly social, interactive, a chance to refresh relationships.”

Saujani also acknowledges that the “blended office” will be a real challenge for “command and control managers.” For those who are even normally results-orientated, it seems more nervous managers are turning to surveillance, and technology is stepping up to provide help. The cost is, as ever, privacy. Names like Team Viewer and Time Doctor are not, in fact, Orwellian Newspeak, but rather Orwellian concepts for monitoring every moment of employee time. One employee being tracked on Team Viewer said of her experience, ‘I barely get to stand up and stretch, as opposed to when I am physically in the office. I feel like I have to constantly be in front of the computer and work because if not, either the TeamViewer logs me out for being idle, or my manager randomly sends a check-in email that I must reply to promptly.”

PwC’s facial recognition technology, initially designed to prevent insider trading, has worrying potential in our new work-from-home world. More nervous managers may be looking at this kind of technology as a way to ensure people are tied to their desks, ignoring the many new pressures and adjustments that need to be accommodated in an entirely new style of working. Pressuring workers to sit at their desk and keep their eyes glued to their computer screen does not encourage strong work and results, and, more importantly, is deleterious to trust on the other end.

Even in less extreme examples, what does it mean to have corporate technology in your home? Working from home reveals the glaring inequalities between managers and juniors. It has always been an easier option for the wealthier and more educated, and they are therefore more prepared and seemingly professional  For workers in my generation, living in London (for instance) will mean living in a cramped space, possibly even more cramped with the addition of a desk in the corner of one’s bedroom. The work laptop has recently entered the most private of spaces, and one that now must be presentable for managers to see and comment on. And even when the computer is shut, it is present, and I wonder if its presence can ever be innocent.

These solutions are clearly not results-focused. Psychologist Marc Quartarone warns that, long-term, tracking can lead to erosion of trust and organizational justice. There are countless studies to vouch for the benefits of movement and walking on creativity. Standing desks are commonplace and accepted. Forcing workers to stay glued to their office chair is not accepted in the office anymore, so why should it be now at home?

Other solutions, like frequent virtual meetings, tire workers (and presumably managers, too). Libby Sander and Oliver Bauman recommend considering ‘whether the meeting actually needs to happen’, and if possible, making the conversation a phone call, to allow the participants to move freely and eliminate the worry of being watched.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff deems the workplace to be “where invasive technologies are normalized among captive populations of employees.” While one is undoubtedly monitored in the office, it is a pressured space that one leaves behind at the end of the day. I wonder, now, what gaps in privacy legislation might be exploited while large-scale working from home is so new?

Although this seems to be a whole new world, work mobiles offer some sense of what’s to come. Work mobiles have long blurred the boundary between personal and professional, as well as allowing employees to carry work data out of the office. While work data has been cared for, in the form of encryption and multi-factor authentication, work mobiles so far have been repurposed for GPS tracking, among other invasive uses. A survey conducted by TSheets found that 21% of respondents who had a corporate application with a GPS tracker were being tracked around the clock (this is illegal), and another 24% did not know how much they were being tracked. This is trend that looks set to increase, justified as virus tracking.

To be clear, employees should be fully aware that they are being monitored and why, the only exception being if they are being investigated for a crime. The ICO’s guidance is as follows:

‘• Consider why you want to carry out the monitoring. This might mean asking what problem you are trying to solve, for example theft in the workplace.

• Once you are clear about the purpose, ask whether the particular monitoring arrangement will truly bring the benefit you are looking for and whether it is justified by this benefit.

• Remember: 1. Monitoring is usually intrusive. 2. Workers legitimately expect to keep their personal lives private. 3. Workers are entitled to some privacy in the work environment.

• Consider whether alternative approaches or different methods of monitoring would deliver the benefits you want while being more acceptable to workers.’

While the enormous migration to working from home may seem a justifiable reason for intense technological supervision, this cannot last long. Managing a team remotely requires a higher degree of skill than an assortment of technological surveillance, and I believe this will become obvious in the coming months. As the fog of distraction and distress surrounding coronavirus clears, management will need to step up in new ways. I believe the strong managers of the new order will work out how to be there for their employees; but I hope that the weaker ones will not turn to tech surveillance as a crutch.

NB: For tips on how to adjust to remote working and management, TrustArc has prepared a few helpful cheat sheets.

To hear the interview with Sandeep Saujani, click on the link below. The discussion about “the blended workplace” is from 20 minutes on. 

[buzzsprout episode=’4503974′ player=’true’] 


Eleanor Morum

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the mediainformationtechnologycommunications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.