WFH – Watched from Home: Office 365 and workplace surveillance creep

Imagine your performance at work was assessed directly from the amount of e-mails sent, the amount of time consumed editing a document, or the time spent in meetings or even moving your mouse. This may sound ludicrous but your boss might be doing exactly that. There are more and more stories emerging of people being called into meetings to justify gaps in their work only to find out their boss had been watching them work without their knowledge.

The Covid-19 global pandemic has reshuffled the context in which a lot of us work in. Suddenly many businesses were forced to shift from physical workplaces to remote working. For a number of companies, this transition translated into a fear that employees might not be working or performing as well as they did in the office, something they decided to fix with increased surveillance. As a consequence, the demand for employee monitoring tools soared. In 2020, global demand for employee monitoring software increased 108% by April and 70% by May 2020 compared to pre-pandemic times. At the same time, search engine queries for “How to monitor employees working from home” increased 1,705% in April and 652% in May 2020 compared to the previous year. The non-profit Coworker recently published a report titled Little Tech accompanied by a database of 550 companies including 182 that offer workplace performance monitoring, with various capabilities.

This Coworker’s report illustrates a boom in the offer of online workspace platforms and monitoring tools responding to this increased demand. Such highly intrusive solutions are immensely problematic in their own right, providing access to every keystroke, mouse movement and sometimes offering features such as regular webcam access to ensure employees are in front of their computer or to monitor their “attention” and “focus”. The resulting invasion of privacy is much more intensive than anything that could happen in a physical office [policy flag!] and steps directly into the employees’ private space.

Yet, these invasive practices are not solely facilitated through the deployment of dedicated employee monitoring software. If you think you are safe from this because your employer does not deploy this type of tools (yet), we might have bad news. Many so-called “productivity suites”, which have been available for years and that you may be familiar with, have also started to integrate discrete and invasive features that compete with the ones offered by bossware.

Among such “productivity suites” is the well known Microsoft 365 cloud-based productivity package, which offers a wide range of tools for real-time collaboration and communication. What may be less well known about it is how it may be enabling your boss to see how you are spending your day while sitting in front of your company’s device.

The following findings come from PI’s investigation into the Office 365 suite as well as from the research conducted by UCL computer science graduate Demetris Demetriades titled “The rise of workplace surveillance technology in the coronavirus pandemic”.

Office 365: The surveillance features you didn’t expect

Whenever a worker interacts with Microsoft 365 they generate data that can be turned into metrics. These data are generated by default by people simply doing their day to day job: writing documents, sending e-mails, chatting on Teams and participating in meetings using the Office 365 Suite (Microsoft Teams, Word, Excel, Outlook etc.).

On the other side of the mirrored glass, by making use of this suite, an administrator is able to access and navigate a variety of dashboards which are automatically generated and can be extremely revealing.

One of these features, the “Microsoft Office 365 Admin Center” hopes to inform administrators about productivity and efficiency of employees within their company. Under the Admin Center one can find two organisational analytics report categories: Usage and Productivity.

Within the Usage reports, administrators will find information about the general usage of services and applications across the organisation or the number of users accessing each Office Application. Under Productivity, generated data can be found on how the company is performing when compared to similar companies that also use Office 365. The report provides estimated quantitative data and statistics that are derived from employees’ behaviour inside an organisation, including how often they use a certain app and how long for. Although these reports present aggregated data, for a smaller organisation they might look a lot like as if the data was provided on an individual-level, since with a smaller number of employees it could be easier for employers to infer who spent time doing what.

Another source of far more granular employee information is the Microsoft Teams Admin Center. From there an administrator can select specific users and read individual metrics from each, including how long they spent on calls, how many messages they exchanged, how many group and 1-1 meetings they attended and more. On top of this, administrators also get access to which device (laptop, phone) a user was connected from for each action they took (attending a meeting, sending a message, etc.). This could potentially be used to infer information or raise questions about why an employee used one device over another. For example, does the fact that someone joined their morning stand-up meeting from their phone mean they were still in bed? The system cannot provide an answer, but it does provide data that allows employers to linger on such thoughts and suspicions.

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