In February this year, a manager at insurance company IAG presented one of her remote working outbound consultants, Suzie Cheikho, with a breakdown of the staff member’s average hourly keystrokes.
During work hours in October 2021, the data showed, Cheikho averaged just 48.7 keystrokes per hour. It wasn’t much better for November and December – in fact, many hours showed no keystroke activity at all.
“I would expect that there would be a minimum more than 0 keystroke activity during each working hour … and that as her role required data input and correspondence with various stakeholders, her keystrokes per hour would be upwards of 500 keystrokes per hour,” Cheikho’s manager said in a statement to the Fair Work Commission after the former IAG staffer submitted a claim for unfair dismissal.
The claim was ultimately thrown out with the Commission saying evidence like the keystroke data proved Cheikho “was not working as she was required to do during her designated working hours”.
Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic saw previously office-bound staff sent home in the name of public health, there have been questions over the acceptability of using surveillance technology on remote workers.
Bossware – as it is commonly known – became an industry unto itself as companies sold tools to measure a worker’s time on task.
Keystrokes are one metric, as is a computer’s idle time.
The common practice of measuring a worker’s mouse movements even led to the resurgence of automatic mouse jigglers to let workers keep their online status.
Other methods of measuring productivity were more obviously invasive, like taking photos at random intervals from a laptop’s webcam to make sure staff were still there.
Surveillance tools were also discovered inside Microsoft’s ubiquitous 365 productivity suite that were casually measuring performance and dishing them up in a managers-only dashboard.
Workers, unsurprisingly, don’t like bossware.
Research from 2021 suggested a vast majority employees weren’t comfortable with having their activity remotely monitored.
Similarly, a survey from last year found tech workers were especially uhappy with being spied on while they worked from home – many of whom saying over surveillance would be reason enough for them to quit.
Peter Leonard, a Professor of Practice at the University of New South Wales Information Systems and Technology school and member of the ACS Artificial Intelligence Ethics Committee said there is “understandable concern” about employers spying on workers.
Some workplaces “simply don’t understand how to implement responsible data governance practices that limit monitoring to that which is reasonable, necessary, and proportionate”, he said.
Still, there are legitimate – and non-punitive – reasons for monitoring remote workers, including for cyber security purposes.
“For instance, assume that I log in to a work-provided service from an uncustomary overseas location,” Leonard said.
“My employer might use geo-locating features to query whether it was me logging-in. To ensure information security, some employers also use keystroke technology, analysing patterns of keystroking that may indicate a person typing is not the individual entitled to use a particular user account.”
The important thing, according to Leonard, is for employers to ensure their monitoring – if needed – is done “carefully and for the right reasons”.
“If employees are concerned about workplace surveillance practices, they should ask their employer for a full description of those practices and associated policies,” he said.
“Employers and employees should each expect a respectful workplace dialogue about when and to what extent monitoring is justified.
“There should also be full disclosure as to technical and operational safeguards and controls put in place by the employer to ensure that monitoring is a reasonably necessary and proportionate means to a justified end.
“Transparency, and dialogue, are key.”