Businesses cracking down on remote work ‘presenteeism’ – here’s how to avoid workplace surveillance

As employers begin to crack down on devices and introduce ever-more invasive surveillance techniques, workers need to know their rights and avoid being caught out.

Remote work and the changing face of employment in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic altered people’s relationships with their employers. But one of the most meaningful changes has been the way rank-and-file workers approach their work. Many will have so-called “fake jobs,” which they run alongside others, assuming that their bosses will never catch them as they never go into the workplace.

Recognizing these risks, employers have started to try to discover which employees are actually working and which ones are hardly there. Bosses have started to install software on work machines that record keystrokes and mouse movements and activate cameras to check whether a worker is actually in front of their laptop – or even at home.

To counter the drive towards workplace surveillance, employees have started to deploy a number of devices designed to spoof employee engagement on their laptops. From mouse jigglers to custom keyboards that fool monitoring software into thinking a worker is constantly typing, these items are increasingly common among presenteeism workers.

Businesses fight back

But those who have managed to duck work with impunity have hit a wall. Earlier this month, Wells Fargo fired a number of employees after they allegedly caught them using tools like mouse jigglers to try to spoof surveillance systems.

The company said, after it had fired the staff, that it “holds employees to the highest standards and does not tolerate unethical behavior.”

The company is not alone in taking this approach. A recent survey by YouGov found that 47% of decision-makers at large businesses that employ more than 250 staff members believe full-time office work is important. As bosses begin to realize the impact non-work or remote work but non-engagement can have on their business, they’re beginning to crack down.

Workplace surveillance, however, is a vexing issue, and one that’s likely to get even worse in the years to come as companies start to collect even more data in the pursuit of providing you with AI assistants. So what should workers do to avoid the surveillance state in their workplace?

Mounting a counterattack

One immediate step to take is to check what processes are running in the background and see if it’s possible to disable them. But the issue is that often these surveillance tools will be hidden – by definition, employers often don’t want you to know what they are and how they’re being used, so you can’t counteract them.

But there are other methods you can take to ensure that you’re not caught up in the tracking, even if you happen to be using one or more of these devices.

A key way that many are caught out is that the surveillance software can look at what the laptop or PC is powering in terms of third-party devices – making it possible to identify when a mouse jiggler is being used. For that reason, it’s advised by those who work to counter the surveillance of bosses to plug in these devices that you use to a third-party electrical outlet.

Plugging your mouse jiggler or external, modded keyboard into a power socket rather than through USB onto your device makes it impossible for the software to detect that you’re using it.

If at all possible, however, it’s worth trying to raise the issue of workplace surveillance with bosses so you don’t have to take evasive action in the first place. A workplace built on trust is vital, and one in which each side respects the other’s viewpoint and trusts them to do the work needed is a better working relationship than one where each is trying to hoodwink the other.