Gone are the days when "I'm going to work from home today" meant that you'd sit back, type a few sentences, get up and make a snack, wash your dishes, file your nails, give them a fresh coat of that new Essie color you love so much, walk the dog, type a few sentences, call your Mom while watering the plants, rummage through the fridge for a snack, type a few sentences, do a squat or two for exercise purposes, order new curtains, type a few sentences, and then call it quits and go home (yay, no commute!). Or whatever it is you do in your "work from home" scheme*; these days, it's over. Employers have realized that you might be up to no good, and they are watching you. Yes, you.
Perhaps we can blame a recent study for blowing our cover. As Slate's Matthew Yglesias wrote at the end of June, citing a survey of office workers by Wakefield Research for the IT consulting company Citrix, "43 percent of workers say they’ve watched TV or a movie while 'working' remotely, while 35 percent have done household chores, and 28 percent have cooked dinner."
But you have to eat, right? Ah, but not on your employer's time! Thus, as Sue Shellenbarger writes in The Wall Street Journal, all sorts of methods by which your boss can keep tabs on you while you're "working from home" are springing up. These mechanisms, which range far beyond occasional emails or phone calls to full-fledged programs and monitoring apps, have, in fact, become something of a business of their own. For example, there are computer-monitoring programs that keep tabs on what websites employees are using "and for how long," sending regular reports of these doings to bosses. Other managers go the more old-school route, assigning weekly objectives and timelines for tasks, maybe putting meetings on shared calendars and using project tracking systems to check up on things. Then there are the implements this writer, and probably anyone who works online, uses as a matter of practice (they actually make the job easier, in fact): Gchat, group chatting systems, and email. More invasive than those: this Google app and this iPhone app that actually let businesses track workers who are "out in the field" or "in business situations." Yikes.
You'd never accept this sort of privacy invasion and control from someone you were, say, married to or dating. But it's your boss, and work is work, and, so, perhaps, people are slightly more OK putting up with such accountability measures, creepy as they seem. Per Shellenbarger, who cites reports from Gartner, Inc., it's predicted that "use of computer security-monitoring programs will rise to 60% of employers by 2015, from fewer than 10% now." As for the privacy question, "The systems are used mainly to secure sensitive data and comply with government rules, but they also generate lots of personal information on employees' online behavior," she writes. "To avoid violating employees' privacy, employers should tell employees they're being monitored and track only business-related activities, attorneys say."
In practice, we're not sure that will make employees feel any better.
Then there's a matter of how you interpret productivity, and how much overall productivity is lost by having to monitor someone else's productivity. Depending on staffing, you might need an entire job devoted to watching over everyone else and making sure they do their jobs...yet, this isn't so different from the old days of, say, having a managing editor enforce deadlines for a magazine close. It's just that everyone was in the office at that point; you weren't keeping tabs on them digitally, peeking into their computer, as it were. Some employers explain that these programs aren't about snooping, they're about understanding what their staffers might be doing wrong, or spending time on unnecessarily. Again, however, in the old days, a lag in work or productivity would have meant "a conversation," not a digital intervention.
In an ideal world, though, we'd all be on board with a balance of life and work and doing the best we can at both without being babysat throughout the process. In some jobs it's obvious, online or off, if you're not doing the work (it's pretty clear at the end of the day if you have or have not written any blog posts); in others, perhaps, it's easier to hide the truth, phoning in the work while spending a lot of time doing other things. But the proof is usually in the work itself. That's an old-school way of saying, if you're doing what needs to be done, and doing it well—perhaps working long hours from home to maximize your paltry life time—you should really be able to get up and take 10 minutes to wash some dishes in the middle of the day, if you need to, without fear of being
grounded reprimanded for it. There's a reason dogs and people prefer long leashes. We're all grownups here, right? Just don't paint your nails, too. That's pushing it.
*The only thing this writer did while working from home this morning was drink coffee and eat watermelon. And write, of course.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.