Not safe for work: Why cyberslacking makes you the company’s most valuable employee

Not safe for work: Why cyberslacking makes you the company’s most valuable employee

Your boss is reading your e-mail, spying on the sites you visit and recording your keystrokes. The biggest time wasters used to be punished, but the newest management philosophy says they should be rewarded. Why cyberslacking makes you the company’s most valuable employee

If wasting time at work is an art form, then we are all artists. We each compulsively engineer our own system of self-reward, refined through repetition: 15 minutes of data entry buys you five minutes of Angry Birds. Upon release from an intolerably long meeting, surely you’re owed 10 minutes on Facebook.  Now respond to at least four work e-mails before checking to see if anyone has noticed the hilarious comment you left on your cousin’s vacation photos. Then quickly visit your favourite Finnish design blog. We all share a common goal: the avoidance of detection.  We memorize keyboard shortcuts to toggle between apps, and we keep our IM windows slyly minimized. We fancy ourselves, each one of us, a swift ninja of procrastination.

I regret to inform you that your employer knows exactly how much time you waste. They track your security card swipes, own your e-mails, record your browser history and log your keystrokes. If they give you a phone or a car with GPS, they can follow your whereabouts. They may employ human spies, spybot software or both to run productivity assessments. Your secret is out.

“Almost everybody monitors—close to 100 per cent,” says Avner Levin, a business law professor at Ryerson University and director of the school’s Privacy and Cyber Crime Institute. “It’s become a fact of corporate life. There’s hardly a discussion about it anymore.” While British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have legislation guaranteeing some level of employee privacy, Ontario offers none. Many companies ask you to sign away every possible claim on your own data. You may have agreed to be spied on when you signed your employment contract.

An acquaintance tells this story about working at RIM: he had been doing well, or so he thought, until he was denied a raise. He was an efficient and well-liked worker who exceeded his produc­tivity targets. He expected at least a small bump to his salary, but instead he got a disciplinary note. The charge? Cyberslacking. He had been caught by company spyware, wasting time on the Internet.

He knew, of course, how the bosses spent their time. “They would always have the spyware up,” he remembers. “We’d be checking Facebook, and they’d be monitoring us. One of them liked to play World of Warcraft at the same time.”

Most companies spy on employees because they are told that they have to. Lawyers advise them that monitoring and storing e-mail is a mandatory safeguard against sexual harassment and wrongful dismissal claims. This isn’t to say that companies are on the lookout for abusive e-mails as they are sent—most aren’t. Only about 40 per cent of large companies keep spies on staff to read or analyze employee e-mail. Usually these are IT department staffers specializing in security. Depending on how nervous a firm is, spying may occupy a part of one employee’s day, or be the sole duty of an entire team.

A predictable thing happens once a company accrues a massive archive of information: they use it. Productivity consultants tantalize firms with promises of squeezing out extra work without hiring extra workers. In a tight economy, where “doing more with less” has become a managerial mantra, companies are increasingly using automated tools that interrogate their vast surveillance archives, running “regression analysis” to identify which time-sucking Web sites to block and which cyberslacking employees to fire.

SpectorSoft is one of the world’s largest purveyors of surveillance software; its products are used by more than 50,000 organizations. Founded in Florida in 1998, the company first described its products as “spyware,” then later adapted the term to “stealth” solutions. Today they’ve settled on the somewhat less menacing phrase “monitoring software.” They also offer a home version, marketed to parents who want to spy on their kids. Oprah celebrated it as one of her favourite child protection tools. SpectorSoft promises customers that their programs record “every exact detail” of employee Internet activity. It tells your boss what sites you’ve visited and for how long, and also takes screenshots that reveal exactly what you were doing on those sites. Managers (and parents) can scan through your surfing history page by page, or receive short summaries of your habits.

Websense is another popular program. It’s used by both companies and governments to block Web sites. The American Civil Liberties Union and Amnesty International have criticized it as a tool of oppressive regimes. China and Yemen have used it to filter Web sites containing forbidden keywords, such as the names of political dissenters. My former employer, the CBC, uses it. When I worked there, reporting on news stories involving gambling or sex was maddening: all access to blocked sites had to be approved one at a time by the IT department. When I was trying to make deadline on a story about Internet poker servers hosted on a Mohawk reserve in Quebec, I found it easier to just go home and work from my own computer.

Perhaps the most sophisticated purveyor of workplace spyware is a company called Cataphora. Their software analyzes an entire organization’s e-mail, determines what the “average” employee’s correspondence profile looks like, and targets those who deviate from that norm for further scrutiny. Cataphora looks for possibly distressed employees who write in ALL CAPS, devious employees who give conflicting information to different people, and suspicious employees who suddenly take conversations off-line. The idea is to identify potential data leakers, whistle-blowers, abusive managers and sexual harassers. But it can just as easily be used to identify which employee is most apt to spread time-wasting Web links, or who might be contemplating a move to a competitor. This is the stuff of dystopian sci-fi: a computer program that identifies corporate crimes and misdemeanours before they are even committed.

The same technology can be applied to less sinister ends: IBM has developed human resources software that snoops on employee e-mail in order to build user-friendly visualizations of complicated work relationships. By tracking the colourful, radiating spheres emanating from the new intern in sales, a manager can see that this lowly employee is building a vast professional network. The intern probably considers her daily chatter with friends at other companies something to hide from the boss. To IBM’s algorithm, however, it’s a signal that she’s a “networked curator,” a valuable asset who, as she tweets and checks her Facebook messages, absorbs new ideas into the company from a bevy of rival firms. The same visualization might reveal that her immediate boss has failed to communicate any of these ideas up the org chart—his radiating circles are few, and dull. This tool rewards the cyberslacker.

IBM’s suspicion that time wasting can be positive has been backed up by independent research. A 2009 Australian study of 300 workers found that those who waste time on the Internet for pleasure get more done than those who don’t. As long as the Web-surfing breaks took up less than 20 per cent of a worker’s time, they resulted, on average, in a nine per cent spike in productivity. The research was conducted at the University of Melbourne by Brent Coker, a professor of management and marketing. Coker concluded that short visits to fun Web sites or quick check-ins with friends could help reset a worker’s focus and steel him or her for onerous tasks. He thinks that the corporate obsession with productivity is off the mark: “Firms spend millions on software to block their employees from watching videos on YouTube, using social networking sites like Facebook or shopping on-line under the pretense that it costs millions in lost productivity. However, that’s not always the case.”

One spyware program looks for distressed employees who write in ALL CAPS, devious employees who give conflicting information to different people, and suspicious employees who suddenly take conversations off-line

He’s got a point; if we’re going to obsessively bean-count each wasted minute on the premise that time equals money, surely we must also take into account the dollars and hours this obsession itself costs us. Consider Cataphora’s newest piece of spyware: a free app called Digital Mirror that lets you spy on yourself. It scans your personal on-line history in order to discover what it calls the “digital you: a complex mosaic of habit, subconscious acts of both omission and commission, and premeditated presentations” (the “omission” part suggests that Cataphora is also spying on what you don’t say). Digital Mirror converts your entire e-mail, IM and Facebook histories into a series of visualizations. One reveals how you divide your time among co-workers. Back in 2007, one co-worker may have taken up 73 per cent of it, but these days she’s down to a mere 23 per cent. Another provides a “buck passer” chart, illustrating who among your contacts shoves work onto others, and who absorbs it. There’s an embarrassing “love life” chart that tracks keywords to tell you how digitally flirty, romantic and sexual you’ve been, with whom and when. And there’s the “Social You-niverse,” a solar system placing you at the centre of all things. Your friends and colleagues orbit you, coming closer as relationships intensify and flaring off into space as they sputter and die.

Digital Mirror is mesmerizing—it’s easy to lose hours poring over its animated visualizations of your communication history, pondering why patter with one co-worker always peaks in the spring. You can almost kid yourself that seeing these patterns will help you learn something you had missed before—that you might emerge from the Digital Mirror a more productive you. And then you realize you’ve been using it for three hours.

Like all productivity tools, Digital Mirror is itself a terrible time-suck. If you use it on the job, you should be fired (not for wasting time, but for unforgivable navel-gazing). Similarly, any manager who dedicates a significant chunk of his own time to spying on staff deserves the pink slip.

Little surprise, then, that some of the most technologically sophisticated companies in the world don’t bother with these tools. Google encourages employees to spend 20 per cent of their time on pursuits unrelated to their specific duties. And any small dot-com would face a geek mutiny if they dared tamper with employee access to the open Internet. It’s possible, I suppose, that Silicon Valley firms have read the pro-slacking research and are making the savvy and self-interested calculation to maximize productivity by seeming not to care about it. More likely, they simply understand technology better than bigger and older companies, and therefore they accept that these things usually cancel each other out: if on-line banking saves a worker from taking a 40-minute break, then that time away from work will surely be reclaimed on Facebook. If Facebook is blocked, the employee will instead fraternize at the coffee machine.

And if that worker feels spied on and censored, surveilled and suspected, he will resent it, and his boss, and the company, and life at work will be that much harder for all.