This summer, a Wake County woman left her job at Nationwide Insurance. Her decision wasn’t driven by a lack of promotion opportunities; she had advanced multiple times to reach a senior position at the company. Nor did she dislike her supervisors or coworkers.
Instead, the former employee said she left her job after the company began measuring her computer usage at work.
“It felt very intrusive and accusatory,” the former employee said. She requested her name not be published so as not to jeopardize future employment opportunities.
Earlier this year, Nationwide broadly implemented software from the New Jersey-based company Verint that measured how employees engage with their work computers throughout the day. Metrics included how many hours they were logged on, whether they were actively interacting with their computers, and how much time was spent on select work-related applications. Workers would then see productivity percentages displayed on personalized dashboards, alongside comparisons to staff averages.
The former employee said this new system led her and her colleagues to modify how they worked: Typing out notes instead of writing them by hand and scrolling through documents with the keyboard down arrows rather than using their mouses.
Whether these steps boosted their metrics were unclear, but the belief was pervasive she said. And it was enough to prompt her to leave.
“I’ve always done my job,” the former employee said. “You know I do a great job. Why are you doing this to me? We are creating a problem where one does not exist.”
Nationwide isn’t alone in monitoring their employees’ computer usage. As remote work proliferated during the pandemic, more companies embraced digital monitoring software.
According to a survey published in July by the International Data Corporation (IDC), more than two-thirds of North American companies currently deploy employee-monitoring software, with an additional 13% saying they stopped using the software after staff protested.
“With remote work here to stay, organizations are relying on (workforce engagement) technology to raise employee engagement levels,” said Trudy Cannon, director of go-to-market strategies and workforce engagement at Verint.
Nationwide employs more than 600 people in North Carolina. In an emailed statement, company spokesperson Ryan Ankrom told The News & Observer: “We trust our employees to provide extraordinary care to our customers. Verint’s technology helps us track performance, troubleshoot issues and improve workflow of the various software tools and applications that are used in support of our customers.”
The scope of employee monitoring, also called workforce engagement, varies. In the IDC survey, more than a third of North American companies said they measure what workers type on their keyboard (called key-logging), capture screen shots of their computers and collect location data. In addition to Verint, common monitoring programs include Time Doctor, Hubstaff, ActivTrak, and many others. Larger companies were the most likely to monitor, the IDC survey found.
“A lot of employers are saying that this is the way that they need to maintain productivity,” said Ifeoma Ajunwa, a professor at the UNC School of Law who researches the employee surveillance industry. “The main reason really is this idea that workers have to be managed, and that (with remote work), managers can’t really have eyes on them.”
It is difficult to know which Triangle-area companies use monitoring software. Ajunwa said one “should assume that most (local companies) do because most employers do.”
The News & Observer reached out to several of the area’s top employers to ask if they monitor their workforce’s electronic usage during the work day. None affirmed they did, while a few like Lenovo and WakeMed Hospital explicitly stated they did not.
Under federal law, employers can monitor work computers and phones as long as they can provide a legitimate business reason for doing so. Companies aren’t required to alert workers to this surveillance. A few states like Connecticut and Delaware do require this notification, but most, including North Carolina, do not.
The former Nationwide employee said the insurance company was transparent when rolling out the Verint software, first as a pilot program and later for widespread use. Still, she felt the data being collected failed to account for the variance of her job.
“The work that I was doing, and the work that my peers do, it changes from day to day,” she said. “You could have a day where you’re just typing. You could have a day where you’re on a six-hour Zoom call. You could have a day where you’re reading and reading and reading. It just it’s so different, and it’s not going to fit into the widget-making model.”
Todd Olson, CEO of Raleigh startup Pendo, said his company released Pendo Adopt in February, employee engagement software his company released in February — Pendo Adopt — aims to help businesses “measure systems and processes, and not humans.”
“I think it’s incumbent on the industry to shift the narrative when we’re talking about measuring employees to measuring software,” he said. “Because the reason we need to measure the software being used is because people are getting stuck in software all the time.”
Olson added the hiccups employees encounter using workplace software are more likely to go overlooked when employees are working at home.
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work.
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