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Bill Bennett

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Working from home surveillance arms race

The move to working from home means there’s a boom in employee surveillance software. Bosses can check workers are hard at it, not leaning back for a Netflix binge.

Companies have used technology to snoop on workers for years. It ranges from spy-in-the-cab devices used to measure truck driver movements to key-loggers counting the number of keystrokes a desk bound employee makes every hour.

If you want you can check if an employee takes many tea, toilet or lunch breaks. There are even home detention style ankle bracelets used in warehouses and similar workplaces to track where everyone is.

Counter productive

Keeping close tabs on workers can be counter productive. If the metric is measuring the number of mouse movements per hour, employees will focus on moving mice, not on doing what they are paid to do.

What you measure is what you get.

For many tasks surveillance is plain dumb. It’s easier to measure a worker’s output. That’s what matters.

They earn their pay as long as they add value, serve customers, clear call backlogs or otherwise improve profits. It shouldn’t matter how many key strokes, phone calls or trips around the warehouse floor they make to get there.

Snooping

Now companies use similar employee snooping technology to watch staff working from home. The companies who sell these systems have seen their business grow at a cracking pace.

The names of these products say a lot about the mindset of companies using the technology:

  • Time Doctor,
  • ActivTrak,
  • StaffCop.

That last one is vile.

On top of everyday snooping there are products which let bosses watch what is going on through the webcams on home computers.

One product that does this goes by the name of Sneek….

There’s a naming pattern emerging here, at least the people who make this software are self-aware. You’d have to worry about managers leafing through brochures for products with names like Sneek and StaffCop.

Listening in

Others products let managers listen in on people’s home. There are tools that automate camera watching or listen in case trigger words are used.

And then there is this example from the Wired story

“PwC has developed facial recognition software that can log employees’ absences from their computer screens – including for bathroom breaks. The accounting firm insists the technology is to meet compliance regulations as the financial world adjusts to home life.”

Much of this is thought of as normal in the US. The products can be illegal elsewhere in the world. This review of StaffCop in PCMag) evaluates the product without any reference to ethics or morality.

It’s one thing for a company to put this software on computers in its offices, or even on computers that it buys and distributes to staff working from home. Asking people to install the software on their own hardware is another level of evil.

The idea of watching people in their homes using a screen was talked about 70 years ago. That’s when George Orwell wrote 1984. In the book Big Brother has a screen where government spies watch people in their homes all the time.

Orwellian

In other words, it’s no exaggeration to describe these applications as Orwellian. We overuse that term, but it applies here.

Once again we are at a point where 1984 is a training manual, not a warning.

Where they can, workers are fighting back. Wired magazine’s story is about the resistance movement fighting home employee surveillance.

As with the bosses, many of the weapons workers use to counter surveillance are digital. It’s an arms race. A range of new software helps workers get around surveillance. Surveillance software companies respond to block the blockers then the blockers block back.

One trick mentioned in the Wired story, which works if you have a powerful computer, is to use a virtual machine. That is, in effect, a software computer that lives inside of your computer. It can fence off the surveillance software.

There is software to fake mouse movements and software to emulate keyboard use. People even stick tape over webcams or microphones and then claim the hardware isn’t working. The potential to fight back is as unlimited at the potential for snooping.

NZ companies should hire more tech interns

Source: Why do we hire so few interns in NZ? – NZRise

Trent Mankelow says New Zealand companies and organisations hired 352 interns last summer. That’s not many when you consider more than 2000 students applied for positions. Applying takes a fair amount of effort, so there are many disappointed students.

While the business of taking on interns can be open to abuse, it’s an essential part of any programme to match companies and organisations with potential employment candidates.

Mankelow runs Summer of Tech, a programme that aims to find internships for students. It is clear that not enough New Zealand companies are using tech interns.

Weak excuses

In his post at the NZ Rise website, Mankelow looks at the reasons employers gave choose to take on interns.

Now there’s a problem right there. When customers choose not to buy something they often offer plausible sounding reasons without revealing the thinking behind their decisions.

It’s stretching credibility to think prospective employers don’t do the same when choosing not to hire interns.

So what they tell Mankelow may not be the real reasons companies choose not to take on young employees for a summer-long test drive.

Not all the reasons are good. What none of them are going to admit is that they are shortsighted, lazy or cheapskate to take part. Some are free riders. They’ll cynically let other companies take the interns they may hope to hire later.

Not a good look

Even if you take the reasons given to Mankelow at face value, they don’t always look good. Take the idea that interns cost too much. According to Mankelow a typical intern costs less than $10,000 in wages. Companies are able to get government grants through Callaghan Innovation for almost that amount if they hire students for research and development projects.

In other words you can get someone with tech skills, even if those skills are still unpolished, at a bargain price. Perhaps $1500 net cost after the grant.

It stretches credibility to suggest a manager can’t get that much value from an intern over a summer. In tech, one good idea well executed can be worth far more than $10,000, let along $1500 or so. Bosses would normally kill for that kind of return on investment.

Which brings us to this year. Sure, the economy is likely to be in a down cycle. But unless circumstances change fast, companies with skilled vacancies to fill are not going to be able to recruit ready-made employees from overseas. This would be a good time to bring in capable young minds to power through any work backlog and line up potential employees for a year or so later.

So, if you are reading this and you run a business, you’ve got about three or four months to come up with a worthwhile summer research and development project.

IBM remote work recall a red herring

Earlier this year IBM told remote employees they must return to the office or leave the company.

It’s a turnaround. IBM pioneered allowing employees to work from home. At times as many as more than a third of the firm’s staff worked at places away from company offices.

The company often lectures others on the merits of remote work. Company marketing describes telework as the future. Moreover, IBM sells products enabling its customers to offer remote work to their employees.

IBM’s remote work policy was popular with staff. Many talented people either opted to join the company or decided to stay put because they could work from home. It’s powerful for working women with families and just as good for dads who like to see their children more often.

Productivity or IBM’s staff costs?

The official reason for the change is that working together in one place helps productivity, teamwork and morale.

There’s something in this. Collaboration is easier when co-workers sit across the aisle. Video conference calls are productive, but so are well organised face-to-face sessions. Chance meetings at the coffee station can spark fresh thinking.

Yet, you can’t help wonder if IBM’s move is about cutting staff numbers. Many remote workers may decide it is too hard to move home in order to keep their job. Some of the office demands mean people have to move long distances to keep their jobs.

There’s research, some sponsored by IBM, showing teleworkers are more productive than office-bound workers. Which argument are we supposed to believe? Can we trust anything the company says on the subject?

Ominous

Yahoo made a similar back-to-the-office move. It was unpopular. Many talented staff members quit. We all know how well that story ended.

There’s a practical problem for IBM workers in places like New Zealand. Some specialist roles are shared with Australia. There are ANZ managers are in New Zealand, others across the Tasman. They shuttle between locations and make a lot of conference calls. What happens to them under the new rules? The fear is they will be under pressure to move closer to the regional HQ in Sydney. That will not go down well with New Zealand customers.

Remote working became popular with large companies about a decade ago as suburban broadband improved. Video conferencing went from being difficult to practical.

Senior managers across the technology and other industries loved the idea of remote work as they thought it would save costs. In theory, offices needed less real estate and fewer support services when workers were elsewhere.

Things didn’t work out that way. Few savings materialised.The other part of this equation is that management went through a stage of being output-focused. That is, they were more concerned with what employees produced than in keeping close tabs on them all day long. If someone produced a report in their pyjamas or by sitting next to the pool that wasn’t a problem so long as the work was good. It seems the pendulum has swung back to command and control.

Harvey Norman shoppers ‘may have a case’

Radio New Zealand reports Harvey Norman shoppers ‘may have a case’:

Rainey Collins Lawyers managing partner Alan Knowsley said if the customers did not agree to the terms and conditions they may have a case.

“They could go off to the Disputes Tribunal and seek to enforce their contract and then Harvey Norman will have to prove that the person should have known the deal was too good to be true,” Mr Knowsley said.

“Some retailers obviously advertise regularly that things are 60-80 percent off and that sort of retailer would be really hard pushed to prove that that deal wasn’t valid.”

According to the company a technical glitch on its website meant furniture and other items were sold at prices way below their nominal value. That’s exactly what consumers have been trained to expect in ‘sales’.

Now Harvey Norman doesn’t want to honour customer contracts. Imagine how that would work if the boot was on the other foot.

This case confirms what many already suspect: that the Australian-owned chain operates in poor faith. Apart from the legality and immorality of offering goods at low prices, taking money, forming contracts and then not delivering, this sends a loud “not trustworthy” message to the market.

If Harvey Norman decided to honour those glitch contracts in full it may have lost a tidy sum of money but there would be no long-term damage. Now it faces the possibility of those losses anyway, plus legal costs, ill will and negative publicity.

That’s bad business practice and awful management.

... and yet NZ retailers still wonder why shoppers head to overseas stores on the internet. 

New Zealand tech vacancies fall

Garry Roberton reports a fall in New Zealand tech job advertisements in his latest regular Trends update for the IITP Techblog. This drop in vacancies comes at a time when the overall demand for tech skills remains strong.

He writes:

Unfortunately, the positive business sentiment is not backed up in terms of the number of Seek ICT job adverts for this month, with a drop of 16 percent on April’s figure of 2483, and 8 percent down on May 2013 (Fig.2 below). This could be due to a dip in business confidence, possibly as a result of 2014 being an election year, although there may be many reasons for the sudden drop in Seek ICT advertised jobs. Perhaps the unexpected return of New Zealanders from Australia, the United Kingdom and the USA, with the requisite ICT knowledge, skills and experience are taking up many of the available positions.

It’s not just Seek. Roberton also notes a 13 percent fall in tech jobs advertised on TradeMe. The sharp fall in May is out of synch with the pattern recent years. We usually see ads climb towards the middle of the year before falling off as summer approaches.

Aberration

As Roberton points out, the May 2014 fall in advertised tech jobs could be an aberration.

It may also be due to the way recruitment companies operate. There’s not always a direct link between vacancies and advertisements. It could also be large numbers of overseas New Zealanders returning home and an inflow of immigrants looking for work. This means recruiters have a relatively full pipeline and don’t need to spend money on advertising.