why your bosses are spying on you, and why they need to stop
Let’s say that you run a company with a few hundred employees, most of them working from home in the wake of the pandemic. In general, according to every relevant survey and study, they don’t want to be working for you. They’re all too often disengaged, miserable, and giving up on getting ahead in life. How do you motivate them and keep them productive? If you said “force install spyware that turns their homes into virtual prisons, and punish them mercilessly for deviating from its metrics,” you’re an awful boss, but, sadly, also far from alone.
According to a blood-boiling story from the New York Times, there is a new epidemic of bosses relentlessly tracking their subordinates with software that behaves much like malware used by hackers to spy on and blackmail their victims. Some “bossware” goes as far as to take constant pictures of workers, time their bathroom breaks, count their keystrokes, and then automatically dock their pay if they think employees aren’t paying enough attention to the screen. The result is a virtual leash tied firmly around people’s necks and it’s yanked with disturbing regularity.
Even worse is that the software itself tracks the wrong things, measuring productivity with the wrong metrics while turning the machines into snitches that scream like digital banshees if an employee dares to ignore them for even a moment. Micromanagers of the world rejoice, for you have found a way to take your subordinates’ misery to brand new levels and are almost certainly destroying their mental health and self-esteem in the process. You have effectively become demons trapping them in a new level of personal Hell.
the problem with micromanagement
Mental health counselors and chaplains working with grieving families judged by how many keystrokes they make. Data entry workers interrogated about how much time it takes to do what in their own bathrooms or looking away from the screen for just a moment. Employees disciplined for doing laundry in between tasks while still completing all their work on time. This style of management is infuriating, disrespectful, and shows that the person ready to resort to it should not be allowed anywhere near leadership roles.
If you’re a boss paranoid about your subordinates spending one moment of time in a way that you do not approve and fail to understand that they’re working for you not because you “own them for 40 hours a week,” but because they have to make money to survive, you need to do them and the entire corporate world a favor and resign immediately. People thrive when given autonomy, respect, and leeway. If you cannot trust your team to get the work done, why even have a team? If you refuse to trust them no matter what, why do you oversee them?
While micromanagers get lost in often irrelevant metrics, workers get fed up, flee the company allowing their mistreatment, and lash out on social media and job sites, steering candidates and potential future superstars far away from an abusive workplace. Sure, your bossware will catch Carol from accounting taking 37 seconds too long to pee, generate a warning, and dock her pay. Meanwhile, her, and every other department is at least five people short because one look at a Glassdoor page terrifies capable applicants while frustrated customers who can’t find anyone to address their problems or do quality work on their account choose competitors instead.
so, where do we go from here?
One rather extreme but popular solution to micromanagement and cultish hustle culture are completely flat organizations with no bosses or managers. Unfortunately, in the real world, they tend to suffer from very similar problems in the end as an official hierarchy simply gets replaced with an informal one. Human organizations, like nature, abhor a vacuum, and it will eventually get filled. The question is only how and with whom. The best-case scenario is that you’ll end up with benevolent despots. The worst? Well, see above.
Management is still very much necessary, it’s just a question of how many levels are needed, how their authority and time are used, and if high performers have alternatives to roles that could be abused for micromanagement to avoid redundancy. Likewise, there must be a sane culture of trust and accountability in which workers are allowed to do their jobs and if it’s done well, on time, and on budget, the bosses don’t hover over them and don’t care if they also did the laundry or took a quick Mario Kart break.
That may not work for every company or industry, but if the employees are working remotely, on a computer, and the transgressions for which bossware threatened them with being drawn and quartered were missed previously with no impact to the business, or the bossware is now actively getting in their way, they’re good candidates for a hands-off approach. Humans are not machines. They can’t be managed like machines. And any organization with sane leaders should know they can’t be treated like prisoners while on the payroll.