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‘If I can’t see you…’: The WFH trust adjustment

05:18pm September 21 2021

Around 40 per cent of workers were estimated to have worked from home in 2020. (Getty)

As the operator of hybrid work website, Geoff Quattromani is unsurprisingly a big fan of the massive changes to working and workplaces in the past 18 months. 

But even he has some concerns about one quirk to emerge with a hint of a big brother vibe: the use of time tracking software to keep tabs on staff working from home. 

“I’m happy to be transparent with everything that I'm working on and even to share my calendar,” he says when asked whether he would install such software on his laptop. “But it shouldn't be something that runs in the background and that I have no control over. I think consent should mandatory.” 

Products such as HubStaff analyse keystrokes, apps used, and time spent on ‘productive’ and ‘non-productive’ websites. It takes real-time screenshots and generates productivity and proof of work reports. It is also capable of GPS tracking.  

Lauren Kelly, senior policy advisor at United Workers Union, says when the pandemic first hit and everyone began working from home, she experienced a sharp increase in the number of workers speaking about time tracking software being used by their company. 

“A lot of these technologies were actually developed before the pandemic, but were waiting in the wings for an opportunity to become relevant and widespread,” she says. 

Time tracking isn’t new for many jobs and industries – think freelancers, lawyers and accountants who often charge by the minute or hour. Likewise, call centres have been subject to close oversight of employees’ time, but Kelly says that in some cases it was stepped up when staff shifted to working from home. She’s also heard of employees from a variety of industries being asked to keep their laptop camera on all day long. 

The rise of working from home has been simply staggering. 

In a new report, the Productivity Commission last week labelled WFH “one of the biggest changes to the way we work in the last fifty years” as the proportion of workers doing home-based work rose to 40 per cent in 2020, up from 8 per cent in 2019. 

Quattromani says that a number of companies remain “very nervous” about their employees no longer being visible to them, and would seek to compel them to return to the office when pandemic lockdowns lift. “It’s that old way of thinking: ‘If I can't see you working, how do I know you're working?’” 

Geoff Quattromani says that time tracking software can be useful if it is a “two-way street”. (Provided)

Kelly agrees, saying: “Some employers are grappling with this new paradigm of work. Having lost the level of surveillance and control they had in the office, they are seeking to replicate that in the home. But of course, the home is fundamentally a private, personal space, so it creates a lot of new tensions.” 

According to demographer and business analyst Bernard Salt, businesses will however have little choice to adjust to working from home and hybrid models, arguing they’re part of a “work revolution” being driven by three forces, including a “trust reset” brought on by COVID-19. 

While not referring to time tracking tools specifically, he says technology can help build trust more broadly through transparency and traceability amid greater demand for real-time information. 

Quattromani says that time tracking software can be useful if it is a “two-way street”, with the employee being able to see what they spent the most time on a given week, and consider whether it was time well spent.

He adds it is inevitable time that tracking software will become more widespread, pointing out that for years companies have been able to report on websites employees visit. “This is a level of reporting that is one step down, which shows what applications you've been using. So it is not that far-fetched,” he says.  

Still, some types of work are patently unsuited to time tracking software, and using it could have disastrous consequences for productivity and morale, such as in more creative professions. Quattromani adds that companies who treat time tracking software solely as a surveillance tool may find that it creates new problems – namely, high turnover rates.

At the very least, Kelly says that many employees who resent the intrusion may respond by cutting their output to the absolute minimum. 

“This software doesn't account for the fact that some really good thinking work can be done away from the computer on a walk, or discussing something over the phone,” she says. “It's a blunt tool and I think the point is control rather than productivity.”

The views expressed are those of the author and the individuals interviewed, and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westpac Group.

Jessica Mudditt is the author of Our Home in Myanmar. She is based in Sydney and as a freelance journalist, she has an interest in workplace issues and technology.

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