Employee surveillance: The thing behind the thing (or many things)

Ted Bauer
3 min readAug 18, 2022

Sadly, especially within COVID, employee surveillance became a huge, growing market. The tongue-in-cheek beauty way to describe it is “performance management,” which makes it seem like you really care about the career development of these drones and peons. In reality, it’s a core middle management tactic to exert control over white-collar workers, which is logical, since work is predominantly about control. It’s starting to get a bit more “mainstream” attention as a concept, though, with New York Times diving deep on it last week and The Atlantic covering it a bit ago as well.

Obviously this is happening, and the fact that it’s happening shouldn’t be a surprise. Employers have long distrusted workers, and Bezos/Amazon made a cottage industry out of religious time-tracking in the name of “productivity,” and lots of managers and decision-makers pretty much just ape what guys like Bezos are doing because “I mean, man, he’s rich?” The thing is, delivery and box-packing times are very objective measures, and you can easily argue that we shouldn’t be hardcore tracking those because drivers are jumping red lights and hitting grandma, etc. But, we still do. We have a long-held confusion about what “productivity” even is.

The problem in white-collar work is that it’s very subjective, and a lot of white-collar work is honestly “hurry up and wait” work, whereby you do something and have to wait five days for someone with more authority and power to “weigh in” on it. So, there is some downtime. And people do have lives outside of work, as much as we don’t want to discuss that. To arbitrarily take a picture of someone’s face every 40 minutes to “see if they’re working” doesn’t really work in white-collar, knowledge work as much as it works in a factory.

People are loafers and lazy, for sure. I am often. But … this is the wrong approach, especially in a trust-deprived environment.

What are all the factors driving employee surveillance?

If I had to make a list, I’d go with:

  • Employers don’t trust employees.
  • Employers are confused about what constitutes “productivity.”
  • Employers have been fed the narrative that tech…
Ted Bauer

Mostly write about work, leadership, friendship, masculinity, male infertility, and some other stuff along the way. It's a pleasure to be here.