On Mouse Jigglers, Surveillance, and Trusting the Remote Worker

This article started with a pad of paper resting on a keyboard. See, we had a problem at work where a user’s inadvertent repeating keystroke wreaked all kinds of havoc on our server. This reminded me of a trend, post-pandemic, where I saw several videos of innovative people, in a bid to keep up appearances of being online and productive, hooking up their mice to oscillating fans. There are several of these gems out there.

In the course of trying to find one of those videos, I came across Microsoft's Move Mouse utility. Now, this is different. This, from a major tech company, advertised as "a simple utility that can be used to simulate user activity." Their product, a software solution to keeping your machine awake, is described thusly:

Maybe you work from home and want to keep your remote session alive whilst you're away from your machine? Maybe you have a long running process that you want your machine to stay awake for? Move Mouse can be deployed in whole host of situations to assist you.

Really? Really, Microsoft? Wow. Then my searching led me to hardware solutions. I just can't stomach running an oscillating fan in my office when it's cold outside, after all. It didn't take me long to find a Undetectable Mouse Mover, Jiggler (Made in Texas!) on Amazon. This one boasts that it can't be detected by IT (it's an analog solution, after all), and proudly uses the word "Artsy" in the product title. With 7,742 global ratings, I have a feeling this product is less of a novelty and more of a practicality for people. And there are more options, like this one and this one and this one (I could go on).

What's going on here?

In a word: distrust. The reality is that some companies watch their employees. Some companies watch more closely than others. Others can go into far more detail, but you've known for a long time that you shouldn't conduct personal business on company hardware and networks, right? Your network traffic is likely being sent through a VPN, which means the company can see, track, and log where you're going. Beyond that, companies can deploy software like keyloggers and other software to ensure you're being productive.

But what's productivity, anyway? And how did we get to the point where there was so much distrust?

This topic reminds me of the 2013 case of an employee who outsourced his own job to China. He paid 20% of his salary to his Chinese counterpart, and it wasn't even a work-from-home situation! He showed up to the office, day after day, and did what many employers fear their employees are doing: shopping, playing games, social media ... but he got his job done. Enterprising? Deceptive? Both?

The deployment of surveillance technology is a canary in the coalmine. The tip of the iceberg. A warning that there are larger, more systemic problems at play.

As an employee, you should want to do you very best work every day, regardless of where you're sitting vis-à-vis your peers. I think most do. However, if you think that working from home means you can slack off more than your office-bound counterparts, I can't help you. And the sad part is that some of the distrust comes from a history of dealing with workers who want to get away with doing less work than their peers. And that has employers asking, "How can I trust that you're working if I can't actually see you working?

Now, I totally understand the use of surveillance technology in certain cases. But, I'd reframe it as a performance-measuring tool and be transparent about it. If you're in a job that's correlated with time, like a call center, I would expect systems in place to monitor the efficacy of workers: time per call, calls per hour, and the like. These metrics may be correlated with your incentive compensation and performance rankings. However, what if your performance is correlated with deliverables like design, software, illustration, or writing? How does it matter during what hours that job gets done? As long as you're not outsourcing your job to another person, that is.

So, how do you establish trust when you're not in person, and when you're not relying on surveillance? It's a very simple recipe:

Show up. Do good work. Repeat.

Notice that nowhere in there does it say that you're in your seat from 8-5. Nowhere in there does it say you're allowed two 15-minute breaks per day. Simply show up. Do good work. Repeat.

Jason Fried published the presence prison in December 2017. If you have green dot anxiety and constantly fear that others will see your status as 'Away' and judge you, read the article. Does it matter where people are right now? To quote Jason, “The vast majority of the time, it just doesn’t matter. What matters is letting people design their own schedule around when they can do their best work.”

Asychronous communication is the future. The fine folks at Doist (makers of Todoist, a fantastic productivity app) published Asynchronous Communication: The Real Reason Remote Workers Are More Productive. If you're a company that feels that your workers need to be surveilled to be accountable, and that all communication has to be synchronous to be effective, read this. Asynchronous communication can level up your team's efficiency and productivity.

If your employer has you stuck in a presence prison, find another employer that will foster a trustful relationship with you. Conversely, if you have an employee who uses remote work as justification for slacking off, let them go. If you're a solid remote worker, though, don't worry about the presence prison. Show up. Do good work. Repeat. And leave the mouse jigglers on the shelf.

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