(NEXSTAR) – At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many transitioned to working from home. This not only took them out of the office, it gave them a chance to wear their pajamas, tend to their children, and any number of other things around their home while on the clock. It also seemed to open the floodgates to new – sometimes unknown – surveillance by employers.
Office workers, while in the office at least, were likely aware when their boss was observing them. They’d walk by your desk or be within view or be in the same conference room for a meeting as you. But once employees transitioned to working from home, employers lost a bit of that human oversight.
Instead, many companies began tracking their workers. Human resource research firm Gartner says the number of large employers monitoring their employees doubled to 60% since the start of the pandemic. That number is expected to grow to 70% within the next three years.
If your employer is tracking you, what they can see depends on the software they use.
Most software can track when you’re logging on and off, how long you spend on social media, and your keyboard or mouse activity.
Some will take screenshots of your screen if triggered by a setting, like ActivTrak. Hubstaff can award badges to employees based on “hours worked, activity thresholds, and more.” Unlike others, Hubstaff allows employees to delete some of their data or adjust it.
InterGuard is able to show how long employees spend on tasks, what they type in browsers, chats, or searches, and more. It can even “quickly identify your team’s superstars, time-thieving slackers, and in-betweeners.”
Teramind lets employers mark certain apps and websites as productive or unproductive. It also gives employers access to screen recordings of an employee’s activities, details on their email usage (including contents and recipients), and private message exchanges on various platforms.
None of the companies mentioned above will access your webcam to view you or your workspace.
It isn’t just software that can give employers a glance into your digital workspace. If you’re using company technology, your employer can most likely view what is on it.
According to Google and Microsoft, authorized administrators can view your emails if you use Gmail or Outlook. Earlier this year, Microsoft Corporate Vice President Jared Spataro said the company believes “using technology to spy on people at work is not the answer and our technology is not designed for that purpose.”
Your employer can also access private messages you send on spaces like Slack and Microsoft Teams, though both have high thresholds employers need to meet before they can read your messages.
It isn’t just employee monitoring that grew during the pandemic: productivity rose, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So why did employers feel the need to monitor employees?
Some employers have turned to tracking software to ensure employees aren’t being harassed, receive compensation for the amount of work they’re actually doing, or if they returned to the office, were following COVID safety protocols, Edgar Ndjatou, executive director for Workplace Fairness, explains to Nexstar. Many companies say their technology can also be used to protect from data breaches or other security concerns.
Still, Ndjatou warns that the technology can feel invasive. And if you’re using company property, there isn’t much legal protection for you if you feel your privacy has been breached.
Unsure if you’re being tracked or what your employer can see? Ndjatou says you should assume that you are and take steps to protect your privacy, like using a personal phone or email outside of work.
He also suggested that if you feel your employer’s ability to track you is invasive, try having a conversation to find better solutions. For employers considering using tracking software, Ndjatou says they should speak with their employees first.
It’s also important to note that even though they can, your employer likely isn’t looking at the tracking data for individual employees. Elizabeth Harz, chief executive of InterGuard, told The Washington Post that most managers aren’t watching you that closely.
“At the end of the day, most managers don’t care if you’re buying your kid’s back-to-school lunchbox on Amazon,” she said. “They’re doing the same thing.”