The WorkPlace Collective | Productivity theatre: the great employee mousetrap
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Productivity theatre: the great employee mousetrap

Productivity theatre: the great employee mousetrap

Unmasking Productivity Theatre: How Employees Fake Work with Mouse Jigglers and Surveillance Software

Have you heard about the great American mouse jiggling caper? It ended in multiple terminations, proving it doesn’t pay to pretend. In May 2024, Wells Fargo dismissed more than a dozen employees from its wealth and investment management division for unethical work practices, including the simulation of keyboard activities to create the “impression of active work”. An internal investigation revealed that the practice of using a “mouse jiggler” was rife.

Mouse jiggling devices can be purchased online for less than $40. They are gadgets that automatically move a mouse cursor at various intervals to ‘outsmart’ employee monitoring software by tricking it into registering that the employee is active. It’s the latest development in the art of productivity theatre. The proliferation of mouse moving gadgets has enabled employees to step away from their desk for prolonged periods and maintain the illusion of diligently working at their computer or device.

Pretend productivity as a method of workplace theatre gathered momentum as the popularity of surveillance tracking software increased following the pandemic. Work from home (WFH) arrangements increased, leading to reduced oversight from managers in the office, so to compensate, many employers introduced surveillance software. A representative of Wells Fargo deemed the practice unacceptable and unethical and not in keeping with the high standard of the bank.

Other banking industry heavyweights have commenced cracking down on workers who flout mandatory office attendance requirements by disciplining workers who work from home too often, or out of their agreed hybrid working terms. Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan, Wells Fargo, HSBC, and Lloyds Banking Group are also among British and American-based banks that have mandated employees work from the office more often, typically three days up to five days depending on the employee’s managerial level.

Data released in August 2023 from the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that 37 percent of employed people regularly worked from home. For employees, WFH arrangements offer flexibility to better balance work and home life, create employment opportunities (particularly for women), and reduce commute times. However, the practice can also result in reduced collaboration, increased feelings of isolation, difficulty disconnecting from work, and increased distrust between employees and employers.

Surveillance software, colloquially called ‘bossware’, is designed to track employee activity by ensuring employees are not slacking off. Bossware monitors keystrokes and mouse movement and uses laptop cameras and microphones as monitoring incentives to boost productivity. Many employers restrict access to websites that are not work-related, including betting websites. Also, it is common for employers to monitor employees’ emails and screens remotely to ensure compliance with policies and procedures, and to confirm start and finish times.

Unions and employee advocates have criticised such techniques as being too intrusive and allowing employers to spy on employees in the office and at home. Fingerprint and facial recognition technology (FRT) allowing employees to unlock their work devices can also be used to create detailed records of employees’ movements and track their daily productivity. Every time a device automatically times out, the employee must use FRT or fingerprint recognition to re-open their device.

facial recognition

For roles that can be undertaken remotely all of the time, fully flexible arrangements allow employees to work from the comfort of their home, but also require faith and trust. For an employee who is new to a business, this can be a leap of faith an employer is hesitant to take. Hence, managers can use fingerprint technology or FRT as a “time-stamp” to track when an employee is logging in to a computer or other work device. Even browser search history logs can reveal an employee’s search habits. Employees want autonomy, so disputes can arise around fairness, equity, and privacy.

The use of FRT to identify and track employees relies on large amounts of personal information being collected and stored. The collection of visual images and data through surveillance technologies will comprise personal information as defined under the Privacy Act 1988 (Cth) (Privacy Act) to the extent that it includes information about an “identified individual”, or an individual who is reasonably identifiable.

The use of surveillance technologies can involve the collection of certain “sensitive information” which is subject to higher levels of protection under the Privacy Act and the Australian Privacy Principles (APPs). Under the Privacy Act, APP entities must not collect sensitive information about an individual unless the person consents. Specific limited exceptions apply. APP entities under the Privacy Act, that are collecting and using personal information, including sensitive information must:

  • only collect this information through lawful and fair means;
  • notify the individual about the collection of the personal information; and
  • ensure that all collection, use and disclosure of personal information is made in accordance with all other APPs.

The use of fingerprint or FRT may also be subject to State and Territory laws relating to privacy and surveillance devices. For instance, the Workplace Surveillance Act 2005 (NSW) outlines that workplace surveillance must not commence without prior written notice to the employee. To reduce the frequency of pretend productivity, employers should reward employees for genuine productivity and clearly communicate the applicable policies and procedures that relate to monitoring and surveillance, and the consequences of non-compliance.

The WorkPlace Collective can assist your organisation to:

  • mediate disputes and/or engage with employees to discuss privacy expectations;
  • draft or update policies, procedures and contracts and regarding privacy and surveillance devices or techniques;
  • ensure best practice methodology regarding the APPs and related legislation;
  • draft and review WFH policies, procedures and arrangements;
  • manage overtime and fatigue risks associated with hybrid working arrangements;
  • write to employees to inform them of any workplace surveillance devices and technologies impacting them; and
  • train supervisors, managers and Information Technology personnel on matters of privacy and/or surveillance techniques.

Employees must be increasingly willing to “say cheese” and allow employers and prospective employers to capture and store their images and private information in this quickly evolving digital age.


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