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  • Writer's pictureAnna K. Schaffner

The Dangers of Confusing Activity with Productivity

Why Employee Monitoring Software Is a Burnout Trap and What We Can Learn from the Undetectable Mouse Jiggler


Anna Katharina Schaffner | Psychology Today

Shorter version of this article originally published on 7 May 2024 on Psychology Today/The Art of Self-Improvement


Imagine that, in one hundred years from now, our descendants visit a museum that displays common everyday objects from our time. What might they find there? And what conclusions would they draw about our fears, longings, and values?

 

As an historian of the present, I would like to reflect on a small piece of tech that is selling like hot cakes on Amazon: the undetectable mouse jiggler. The mouse jiggler is a presence and activity simulator, designed to give the impression that we are sitting alert at our screens, engaged in meaningful work. It makes our mouse move at random intervals, imitating the clicking and scrolling activities of a typical knowledge-worker.

 

The anthropologists of the future would surely wonder why on earth so many of us had a need for such a simulator. Because all our tech will be obsolete by then, and most digital information lost or unreadable, they will have to come up with their narratives. I’m sure they would have fun with this particular interpretative task. Here is what I would tell them about the mouse jiggler. My tale, however, leans more towards the tragic rather than the comic side of the spectrum.

 

Hello, 1984!

First and foremost, the mouse jiggler is a technological response to another tech innovation, namely, employee monitoring software (EMS), which is becoming ever more ubiquitous across the globe. The clue is in the name. In spite of the fact that most research confirms that home and hybrid working enhance employee productivity, engagement, and wellbeing levels (Hall et al., 2024; Harrington & Emanual, 2021; Bloom et al., 2013), ever more employers are fearful of losing control over how their employees are spending their working hours.

 

As working from home (WFH) has become ever more common, there are now more nuanced findings on WFH that show both advantages and disadvantages (Bloom et al., 2024). A recent Observer article on the topic highlighted that home workers tend to eat more cake. There are also anecdotal reports that mid-week golf playing has become a thing. The bottom line, however, is that it remains financially beneficial for companies (whatever they may lose in terms of productivity, they more than make up in costs saved on office space and global hiring) (Bloom et al., 2024). Hybrid working in particular has significant benefits for staff wellbeing and retention. In addition, Hall’s meta-study has found that home workers actually spend more time in front of their screens – they work longer hours and take shorter breaks than people working in offices. They tend to take less time off sick and also often work evenings and weekends (Hall et al., 2024).

 

And yet the accelerated move towards WFH during COVID has strengthened demand for products that measure productivity and evaluate efficiency – regardless of where employees are based. Employee monitoring software measures mouse movements and keyboard activity. It can also track and evaluate websites visited and documents opened and closed. Perhaps most disturbingly, some programmes take random screen shots of employees during the working day. Employers can literally see for how long you go to the loo, when you take breaks, and how much time you spend on specific websites. Screen shots may catch you unaware at any moment of your working day. Hello, 1984!

 

The disturbing intimacy of this kind of data grab seems to be driven by a fantasy of total control. It is also rooted in the feudal idea that employers not just “own” their employees’ time while they pay for it, but that they should be able to control their employees’ movements, bodies, and even thoughts during this period of temporary servitude. The desire here is not only to prevent employees from stealing their bosses’ time, but also to find  more effective ways to “sweat assets” and to maximize the utilization of “human resource”.

 

Category Errors and Time Thieving

These metaphors speak for themselves. But other things are at stake here, too. First, software of that kind rests on a conflation of key categories, namely, that of activity and productivity. Activity, as in surfing websites, opening documents, and moving our fingers and devices, is IN NO WAY an indication of meaningful work. Ask Cal Newport (2016, 2019, 2024). EMS measures neither  the quality of our thoughts nor their quantity, for our attention could literally be anywhere while our bodies are physically present in front of our screens. And nor can mouse activity ever indicate how effective and impactful our actions are. It merely logs physical movement.

 

Secondly, the knowledge that every minute we move away from our screens will be logged and potentially contested will make us even more reluctant to take proper, restorative breaks. Home workers are already significantly worse at taking breaks than office workers, and this trend is concerning (Hall et al., 2024). All research on the secrets of human productivity and flourishing tells us that taking proper breaks is essential for working and performing well. Being monitored in this intrusive way will make us even more reluctant to take the breaks we need. Burnout rates are already at a historic high – and an even more burnt-out workforce is in nobody’s interest. I have heard stories about people being reprimanded for taking too long to get a drink from the watercooler in their office, and watercoolers being removed from office spaces altogether because people tended to cluster around them and chat for a few minutes, thus wasting valuable work time.

 

Thirdly, such low-trust, low-autonomy approaches to staff can only be profoundly counter-productive on the engagement front. We know that the best way to enhance productivity and engagement in any organisation is by building trust, creating psychological safety, fostering autonomy, supporting personal growth and professional development, and stimulating a sense of belonging and shared purpose (Lencioni, 2002 & 2012; Canavesi & Minelli, 2022). EMS does the exact opposite. By assuming that all workers are lazy time-thieves, it treats staff like naughty children who need to be closely monitored and disciplined. By fuelling competition between co-workers along the lines of who can work the longest hours and take the shortest loo breaks, it erodes community and will significantly lower workers’ morale and overall wellbeing.

 

People will inevitably rebel against mindless and humiliating digital servitude of that kind. In fact, they already are – either with self-protection tech such as mouse jigglers, or else by quiet or loud quitting. While EMS may well generate a short, fear-induced spike in productivity, in the long run its effects will be counterproductive. Even Forbes admits that EMS can be “destructive when it comes to morale and company culture” and can lead to “employee frustration, increased turnover, ethical issues and potential legal issues.”

 

Lastly, many modern workplaces have already actively rendered what Cal Newport calls “deep work” completely impossible (2016). And yet most knowledge workers should surely spend much of their time on precisely that. Together with back-to-back Zoom meetings, highly distracting tech, no offline time, and no permission to switch off even in the evening, EMS will only aggravate what is already a deeply counter-productive state of affairs.

 

The mouse jiggler, then, tells a sad tale about a regressive return to outdated attitudes to work, time, leadership, and organizational culture. Operating in the zone where employee and employer interests clash, the device also signals the hardening front between advocates of flexible and home working and those who abhor it for ideological reasons. Let us also remember here that WFH is particularly important to women with children and other people with caring responsibilities – people whose interests are frequently successfully ignored.

 

Crooked Timber of Tender Seedling?

At a deeper level, EMS deployment betrays a philosophical (as well as a political) belief that people are fundamentally bad and need to be subjected to discipline, fear, and punishment. The carrot–stick debate is of course ancient. Two Chinese philosophers of the Warring State period (476–221 BCE) already debated the fundamental qualities of human nature. Mengzi held that humans were intrinsically good, whereas Xunzi believed the opposite to be the case. The former believed in feeding the soil, nurturing growth, and gently tending to the diverse portfolio that grows in the garden of humanity, whereas the latter believed in aggressive weeding and various strategies to straighten the crooked timber of humanity by force. We can translate this into a trust-based, developmental, growth-oriented approach to workers vs. a bullying climate of fear approach. Or, if you wish, a love vs. hate stance.

 

Research suggests that investing in workers’ mental wellbeing, in community-building workshops, and in enhancing company culture is a much wiser choice than digital spy-ware (Deloitte 2019 & 2021). Stick approaches, even digital ones, really are crude remnants from a bygone age, which, in all smart businesses, have long been replaced by smart support and incentivization mechanisms. Besides, most employers already have multiple tools to assess their employees’ performance – including traditional KPIs and numerous other nuanced and commonsensical measures of what constitutes good work. Providing clear guidance on role expectations and performance targets, and the necessary support and motivation to reach these, as well as creating cultures in which knowledge-workers can truly thrive, is bound to be a lot more effective than forcing us regularly to fidget with our mouse.

 

Inner Mouse Jiggling

But here is the most disturbing thought: what if we are all internal mouse jigglers – even if we are amongst the lucky ones who are not monitored by external forces in that way? What if we have deeply internalized the wider cultural imperative to be active all the time? What if we, too, confuse activity with productivity, and the act of merely sitting in front of our screens with meaningful work? So many of us have become our own bad bosses, willingly removing our own watercoolers and all moments of joy, rest, and community from our lives. Our unhelpful work ethic, and our injurious assumptions about work and time, emerged long before EMS. In fact, they have century-old religious roots that equate laziness with sin, worldly success with spiritual salvation, and productivity with our ultimate existential purpose. Over the centuries, and especially in the recent decades of fast capitalism, these beliefs have congealed into a kind of malware employee monitoring system in our own heads. The undetectable mouse jiggler, then, is merely a symptom. It is the manifestation of our long-standing enslavement to a much older and profoundly unhelpful productivity diktat.

 

 

 


Works Cited

Barrero, J. M., Bloom, N., & Davis, S. J. (2023). “The Evolution of Work from Home”. Journal of Economic Perspectives, 37(4), 1–28. Online at: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1kqbngD8pemqxAkZmWCOQ32Yk6PXK9eVA/view

 

Bloom, N. A., Liang, J., Roberts, J., Zhichun, J. Y. (2015). “Does Working from Home Work? Evidence from a Chinese Experiment”. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 130(1), 165-218.

 

Deloitte (2019). The ROI in workplace mental health programs: Good for people, good for business. Online at: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/ca/Documents/about-deloitte/ca-en-about-blueprint-for-workplace-mental-health-final-aoda.pdf.

 

Deloitte (2021). Mental health and employers: The case for investment – pandemic and beyond. Online at: https://www2.deloitte.com/content/dam/Deloitte/uk/Documents/consultancy/deloitte-uk-mental-health-report-2022.pdf.

 

Hall, C. E., Brooks, S. K., Mills, F., Greenberg, N., & Weston, D. (2024). “Experiences of working from home: umbrella review”. Journal of Occupational Health, 66(1). Online at: https://academic.oup.com/joh/article/66/1/uiad013/7473692?login=false.

 

Harrington, E., & Emanuel, N. (2021). “Working' Remotely? Selection, Treatment, and Market Provision of Remote Work (JMP)”. Harvard University Working Paper. Online at: https://scholar.harvard.edu/eharrington/publications/working-remotely-selection-treatment-and-market-provision-remote-work.

 

Lencioni, P. M. (2002). The five dysfunctions of a team. Jossey-Bass.

 

Lencioni, P. (2012). The Advantage: why organizational health trumps everything else in business. Jossey-Bass.

 

Newport, C. (2016). Deep work: rules for focused success in a distracted world. Grand Central Publishing.

 

Newport, C. (2019). Digital minimalism: choosing a focused life in a noisy world. Portfolio.

 

Newport, C. (2024). Slow Productivity: The Lost Art of Accomplishment Without Burnout. Portfolio.

 

Tapper, J. (2024). “Working from home can bring big health benefits, study finds”. The Observer, 17 February. Online at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2024/feb/17/working-from-home-can-bring-big-health-benefits-study-finds.

 

 


Image: Tobias Tullius @Unsplash

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