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Are Idle Hands the Devil’s Playthings?

For some employees, their work is an intrinsically-motivated calling where the autonomy associated with doing something of value is the key to retention. As an example, Hospice Chaplain, the Reverend Heather Thonvold, performed all the most difficult tasks associated with helping chronically-sick patients and their families manage the painful process of transitioning through the final stage of life. This included managing the economic uncertainty associated with health care costs, wills, and funeral planning, as well as the tears, anger, guilt, and spiritual questions associated with death. This was sacred work that was viewed as a calling, except for one thing: the Reverend and her colleagues were under extremely close electronic performance monitoring by their employer, who used remote sensors to track their every movement and activity. These sensors then coldly quantified the work using a point system that deducted points for anything that looked like “idle time.” 

The construct of idle time is at the center of an increasingly large industry devoted to measuring employee “Productivity Scores” based upon electronic surveillance. Although this industry was experiencing some growth prior to Covid, the pandemic hastened the already growing trend exponentially. This was especially the case when it became clear that many workers were never going to return to their offices, and that employers needed a permanent means of making sure that employees were not “shirking” while working from home. This was particularly acute in any job where someone worked at a computer equipped with a camera, microphone, screen-capturing software, a mouse, and a keyboard. For some workers, this devil’s bargain of trading time at the office with a loss of privacy made sense.  

However, what became clear for many very quickly was that the systems monitoring them were often inaccurate and almost always dehumanizing. In terms of accuracy, the systems were clueless when it came to capturing offline activity and worthless when it came to assessing hard- to-quantify activity – like thinking. For example, Carol Kraemer, a finance executive, thought she was going to be paid a fair hourly wage when she switched employers, but soon realized that any time she was “idle” (defined as not moving her mouse or typing on her keyboard) was deducted from her hours. She found that she had to work 60 hours a week to register 40 hours of paid work. Eventually she resorted to doing “busywork that is mindless” just to accumulate clicks, apparently unaware of the fact that technological counter-measures called “mouse jigglers” are now available to help fool unsophisticated tracking systems. 

Indeed, many employers are now finding that overly close electronic supervision systems cause more problems with morale and turnover than they solve relative to worker efficiency, and many are backing away from these systems. For example, Amazon, facing employee dissatisfaction and unionization drives, has retired the terms “time off task” from their lexicon and reduced (but not eliminated) electronic monitoring at their warehouses.  

Back at the deathbed, despite complaints to her employer, Reverend Thonvold saw no such changes on the horizon, and quit her job when she realized that the monitoring system to which she was yoked was preventing her from fulfilling her calling.     

Questions for Students 

1. Would you be willing to trade the opportunity of working from home for your privacy if it required you to be watched via your computer’s camera and screen-monitored via some productivity software systems? Why or why not? 

2. Do you think that the costs of electronic monitoring systems, when it comes to morale and turnover, are worth the benefits that might accrue from preventing employees’ “shirking” while at home?  

Notes for Instructors 

One might want to start by asking students if they ever knew a friend or co-worker who shirked on the job whenever they were not being watched. Most students will easily come up with examples, some of which are quite amusing. You might make the case for why some employers might be attracted to this technology to catch people like the students describe. Then you may transition to examples of people the students knew who were conscientious and viewed their work as a calling for whom such a system might destroy their own sense of purpose and agency. End with some alternatives to “activity tracking” such as management by objectives systems that focus on “ends to be achieved” instead of activities to be counted. 

Sources: J. Kantor and A. Sundaram, “The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score, The New York Times Online, August 14, 2022; E. Bentley and S. Krouse, “Meet ‘Chet.’ His Employer Knows What Time He Woke Up Today.” The Wall Street Journal Online, July 20, 2019.