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"Monitored down to the underpants": How companies collect data about their employees in the home office

Programs that monitor employees and measure their performance have become more popular since the beginning of the Corona crisis. Swiss companies also use them. Researchers at the University of St. Gallen have now examined how employees react to digital surveillance.

In the Corona crisis, many employees suddenly had to work at home. Some companies have now found favor with this, they want to rely more on home offices in the future. This has consequences for superiors. For example, they can no longer see whether their employees are sitting at the computer or prefer to drink coffee with their colleagues. Many therefore seem to be looking for alternatives: The demand for software for “employee tracking” is up to three times higher with various manufacturers than before the Corona crisis, as reported by the “Süddeutsche Zeitung” and the “New York Times”.

Hubstaff, Activtrak and Time Doctor are names of such tracking providers whose programs are referred to by critics as "spy software". The manufacturers themselves avoid the word "monitoring" and instead promise to measure the performance of employees and, for example, to map it in a "productivity score". To do this, they sometimes record every movement of the mouse pointer on the screen and every keystroke. Or they allow a boss to see which websites her employees visit and for how long.

Monitored emails and movement tracking

In Switzerland, bosses cannot simply use these programs as they want. In an ordinance to the labor law it says: "Monitoring and control systems that are supposed to monitor the behavior of employees in the workplace may not be used." Exceptions are possible, however, if there is evidence of abuse by employees - or if the company uses the technology for other reasons.

The labor inspectorates of business cantons such as Bern, Zurich or Basel-Stadt write on request that they have not yet received any complaints about virtual surveillance in the workplace. However, anyone who is concerned about in-house monitoring can also contact the Federal Data Protection and Information Commissioner (Edöb). There it is said that although software is used in Switzerland that measures the productivity of employees, Edöb has not yet carried out any clarifications. Most of the inquiries concern the monitoring of e-mails, the observation of surfing behavior or the tracking of the movement in the company vehicle or via smartphone. These are forms of surveillance that can also be included in the «spy software».

Edöb's head of communications, Hugo Wyler, emphasizes that employers must adhere to basic principles when monitoring and, for example, make transparent which data they have recorded. In addition, they should not collect and aggregate data unnecessarily. The processing must be "proportionate". Wyler also makes it clear: "Permanent behavior monitoring is not permitted."

Often the performance of the whole team is measured

As part of the National Research Program on Big Data (NRP 75), work researchers at the University of St. Gallen have examined several companies that use datafication technologies. According to research assistant Simon Schafheitle, this is not just classic "spy software". Nevertheless, the programs allow, for example, movements to be recorded on the screen.

"We spoke to employees who are monitored down to their underpants," says Schafheitle, adding: "A short time ago my hair would have stood on end if I had known how much detailed information is being collected about employees." However, it is important to note that companies use the technologies primarily to optimize processes. By moving the mouse pointer, an employer can find out whether an activity can be automated. The data is therefore often aggregated and not evaluated on an individual level. However, the programs can also measure the performance of individual employees or an entire team - as a side effect, so to speak.

Because surveillance goes so far at some companies, the researchers wanted to know what impact data collection has on employee trust. You have observed that employees of two companies who use similar technologies react to it completely differently. "People at one company think it's great, at another it's terrible, even though the invasion of privacy goes equally far," explains Schafheitle.

The algorithm as a «flesh and blood boss»

Antoinette Weibel, who heads the St. Gallen research project, concludes that it is not just crucial that employees know what data is being collected. Rather, they should be involved early on and, for example, be able to participate in the evaluation of the data. "That is usually the decisive factor when it comes to the question of whether you perceive the technology as a kind of Big Brother and feel constantly monitored or see it as an opportunity to learn or help." Critical handling of the superiors with the algorithms is also central.

Little is known in Switzerland about the spread of technologies that collect data on employees. In an initial survey of around 160 large Swiss companies, the St. Gallen researchers found that 37 percent of companies use various datafication technologies to assess performance. 18 percent use it to see whether their employees are sticking to the rules.

However, this was before the Corona crisis. Therefore, Weibel and Schafheitle want to carry out a second survey in June. They anticipate that the proportion of companies that measure the performance of their employees or want to monitor compliance with working hours in the home office will continue to rise in the next few months.