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Bosses panic-buy spy software to keep tabs on remote workers (bloomberg.com)
472 points by chatmasta on March 30, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 347 comments



This happened to me years ago. I was put in an empty office at the opposite end from my boss, and because he couldn't walk up behind me to see me working, he secretly installed a program on my computer that took a screenshot every 30 seconds (or so?).

I quickly noticed that my computer was hitching regularly (when the screenshot was taken - this was in the late 90s BTW), and so investigated my computer on a day when he wasn't in the office.

After finding what looked like malware on my computer, I checked with other colleagues - and the other owner - and no one had any idea what it was.

So we put the office network on lockdown, halted everything and started the process of rotating all our passwords and scanning every computer in the office looking for signs of intrusion, etc..

We lost a solid day of productivity for everyone, and when we finally reached the other boss, he owned up to what he had done, and the other owner - who had spent the day in a panic - wasn't thrilled about it to say the least.

The irony was that I was probably the most productive person in that office (in my humble opinion).


> because he couldn't walk up behind me to see me working, he secretly installed a program on my computer that took a screenshot every 30 seconds

> The irony was that I was probably the most productive person in that office (in my humble opinion).

The easiest and the most efficient way to ruin my productivity is to look at my screen. I can't work (nor can I pee - a funny coincidence, that's called "paruresis") when somebody is watching.


Off topic, but related to this...

I had, what I felt, was the best seat in the office at my previous job. We had an open office with short cubicles and standing desks, and the cubicles were arranged so that two people shared a small area with two desks/cabinets/etc.

For a while, it was wonderful. My "cube-mate" worked from home 4 days a week and only came in for meetings, and we had a window on one side and an empty desk on the other. It was about as great as an open office can be.

And then my manager moved into the cube nextdoor, and arranged his desk so that when he stood at his standing desk (which was most of the time), he was looking directly over the cube wall at me and my monitors. It made me very self-concsious and uncomfortable, and was (a small) part of the reason I left, TBH.


Looking back over my career, there's an obvious inverse correlation between being watched and being productive. Well, except that I'm able to look productive while being watched, and arguably that counts as "productivity". Just not the kind the company probably had in mind.

Works the other way as well. I don't want to be able to see what others are working on--open offices are also distracting for this reason.


I've always been terrible at looking busy. At my very first job, I'd written a bunch of macros and scripts to generate my code directly from the functional design, so half the time I would be leaning back watching all my scripts do their thing. My boss hated it.

Over time, I think I've gotten better at looking busy while reading HN. I don't think there's a very strong correlation between looking busy and being productive.


I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read HN through lynx for this exact reason.


You know, I've always wondered why there are so many stories about these middle management types who seem to pay so close attention to things that are _not_ employee productivity. I guess on first glance, it may appear that "looking busy" corrates to "getting stuff done", but why not cut out the middle man and pay attention to what the employee actually does?


I'll give you a potential corollary. Quality control.

In a perfect world, quality control twiddles their thumbs all day, does some tests, and collects a paycheck because everything is perfect the first time.

In practice, I know engineers who leave in tiny and easy to fix mistakes for QC to catch. They do this because if they turn in something with no errors QC finds something for them to add, frequently requiring larger changes and thus creating a crunch. QC does this because they have someone breathing down their neck who measures their effectiveness by how many errors they caught. I'll refer you to Goodhart's Law[0].

I'll also note that I see this as a common "tip" for paper submissions. But I'm not sure it is as strong of a correlation as when passing things through QC.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Goodhart%27s_law


Related: "Just remove the duck"

https://rachelbythebay.com/w/2013/06/05/duck/


That requires the middle managers to actually understand the jobs and responsibilities of their staff. For me, this hasn't been the case in over a decade. Since my current boss doesn't really have a technical understanding of what's involved with his teams responsibilities, he instead simply feeds metrics to his boss (also not technical). These metrics range from tickets closed, system uptime, and "automation." I would love to have the Bobs come in and ask him what he actually does here.

It's also important to realize that what middle management wants and what its staff thinks is important usually diverges. Middle management wants to look good, to climb the ladder. Staff generally wants someone to provide guidance, and remove obstacles. If middle management isn't technical, there ends up being a gap.

My favorite is a manager who hired a DevOps admin. This person had never touched Docker, yet after a one week course, was put in charge of our environment. Needless to say, he's made Docker look really bad due to his inexperience. The manager looks good though, because our stodgy company is using Docker.

My second is the manager who was hired to manage our SQL and Oracle team. He has no experience with either database, and was a pity hire by our VP. He's been wonderful.../s


It’s like I am reading the rough draft script for Office Space 2


The problem is that most middle managers don't really care about the product. Their entire job is just message passing between higher level managers and lower level employees. Their real purpose in the organization is to propagate a sense of hierarchy which makes directors feel important and the workers feel unimportant.

Their purpose is to manipulate the self-esteem of the people within the organisation so that workers feel so bad about themselves that they never feel entitled to ask for a raise and directors feel so good about themselves that they feel entitled to keep paying themselves large bonuses. Middle managers don't serve customers, they only exist to serve the emotional needs of their bosses.


I notice a lot of people here feel uncomfortable when other people can see their screen. I completely recognise that feeling, though over time I learned to ignore it, and these days I just don't care anymore.

That said, there has been one situation where it was actually an advantage that everybody could see our screen. We had the most terrible working spot you could imagine: next to an intersection of two corridors, in a room that was open on one side, had a glass wall on another, was shared with another team, and had only a single window. A co-worker was sitting with his back to the intersection so everybody could see his screen. At the time, we were playing around with Neo4j, which has a nice graphical browser interface, and everybody seeing that, got us into contact with a couple of other teams we didn't know before that were also using Neo4j.


My experience with middle management is the one of incompetence and personality that enjoyes little power trips.

I had also good managers, but imo, the way companies are organized currently attracts and promotes leaders that are bad at leading part.


To be fair, I don't think the manager in question did it purposely to monitor me, but it made me uncomfortable nonetheless.

TBH, I should have asked him about it, but I couldn't think of a way to bring it up that didn't sound rude or suspicious, and it turned out I left soon anyway.


I fear that a lot of this stems out of those managers having a fixed mindset, where they feel that they are smarter and more productive than everyone else (telling themselves that's why they got promoted), but they also don't trust that their staff being productive.


Same here -- until recently the door nearest my desk was the one the CEO would use to enter/leave the office. The first thing you see when you open that door is my 21" screen, and it was nerve-wracking the whole time. Now that I'm home I'm so much more relaxed, and way more productive as a result.


I'm only like that because I know that someone looking at my screen will either misinterpret what they are seeing or they will ask a question that requires a lengthy answer(a domain they have little understanding over yet is under their authority), so my brain goes into overdrive trying to figure out how to answer them in a way that gets them to go away as soon as possible.


My touch typing goes to pieces whenever somebody is watching for some bizarre reason. It's like my fingers get self conscious and start tripping over themselves. I'm normally a 75-80 WPM typist.


I developed that paranoia over ten years ago in my first real job. The only desk available was the one right next to the door. With the back to the door. Everyone who entered the office had no choice but to stand in my back and look at my desk and screen. Still flinch when someone comes up behind me when I'm working, even it's my kids.


This is one reason why it's really not natural for some of us to do whiteboard coding interviews, or even CoderPad, etc. interviews. It's like trying to pee when someone is watching you, although that's not an analogy I would encourage job seekers to make to a hiring manager.


I've failed several CoderPad interviews in a row, it's to the point where if a job listing specifically mentions CoderPad, I won't apply :\


For a time at an old employer I had a desk with a glass wall directly behind me.

On the other side of the glass wall was the pause room, with the coffee machine and everybody gathering. That felt really awkward.


> (when the screenshot was taken - this was in the late 90s BTW)


Where I live what he did is a fairly serious criminal offence.


It appears to be standard practice everywhere in corporate America.


Screenshots are not standard practice- in fact, since they're a great way to leak secrets being displayed on screen (passwords, confidential information), that's probably the opposite of standard practice.

Standard practice is monitoring emails, chat, web traffic and so on.


You call it screenshots I call it vnc/rdp etc. see the rest of the discussion for how companies get away with it.


It is? I guess I'm in a special boat being a developer and being able to run Linux at work since 2012, but even on the corporate Windows/Mac workstations, I don't think I've been at a company that's installed any type of spyware (other than standard remoting tools used by help desk and controlled with Group Policies).


They don't disclose what they do, and typically it's a function of company size. Once you get past a certain point and there is budget for an IT department, they start installing things like 'endpoint management' and redirect your DNS to something that logs all DNS records, etc.


that is entirely different from taking screenshots.

It seems blatantly obvious for security and audit reasons a company should log internet usage on their secure network


Things like DNS tracing apply outside their network too, like WFH situations with no VPN.

Overall in practice, there is nothing stopping creepy sysadmin, boundary overstepping lawyer or creepy manager from secretly stalking specific employees by pushing IT departments to install extra monitoring software or just plain spying on specific employees.


I've only been a professional for 8 years but I've never had this experience as a developer.


How can you be sure?


Because every place I've worked (including corporations) I've had local admin on my box and could see the entire process tree. Usually you have to be running all the antivirus and monitoring stuff to connect to the employee network/VPN, but when you're off VPN you can kill those processes off.


>Because every place I've worked (including corporations) I've had local admin on my box and could see the entire process tree.

That's assuming that the spyware isn't some sort of rootkit that tries to hide its presence. If you're on windows, it's also very easy to hide behind some generic looking executables like svchost.exe


You are certainly correct, but a bit of light digging + reflection on your company can give you a lot of confidence. For example, I work at a startup and I can say with great certainty that my boss has way too much going on for him to have installed any sort of rootkit after wiping the previous data and before I set up my admin account.


You’re not the average employee-computer user!


I've been driven to the store and told to pick out my own computer and accessories and nobody ever had it in their hands for any length of time other than the employee who carried it to me. This has happened in two of my seven or so jobs. As a counterpoint, however, at another position the boss was indeed spying on us, which wasn't surprising if you worked there for any appreciable time since he was a complete control freak.


That’s far from average practice. I couldn’t care less for the obviously non-abusive cases. They’ll never number significantly.


I've had the same happen to me (and all my colleagues) at my first work place as a developer.


But not criminal (assuming it’s their equipment).


It's standard practice if you agree to it in your employment contract.


In some juridictions (mostly EU countries I think ?) your employer would be at fault if they gathered personal information (for instance a sexual orientation you didn't disclose) from a personal account you used on a work computer. Or from anything you explicitely marked as personnal, even if it's on your computer. They might still delete the data indiscriminately, just shouldn't access it.

Being at work, on company's hardware, isn't enough to completely void your expectation of privacy.


And if you don't, you generally don't get employed.


That's not true.

I've been working in software for almost 20 years and have never had spyware like this installed on my PCs. I've worked for companies with over 70k employees, down to start ups with fewer than 100. Both in office and remote.

I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it's definitely not normal, and I would personally never work under those conditions.


It's not normal to do screen capture, but internet logging and email/chat discovery are almost universal in a large company. Most financial companies will have forensic agents and inspect random emails.

Also, security tools are getting more sophisticated. As legacy AV gets replaced by next-gen stuff, there will be more creepy shit. If you have a tool like Crowdstrike, most developers will do stuff will get them flagged as high-risk.


You don't need to go to third parties to obtain such surveillance software, microsoft has several solutions for this as well. Actually many large companies that are running windows are also using windows defender advanced threat protection (atp), not just b/c it's easy to deploy, but also b/c it isn't very noticeable by users.

It's questionable how much such tools actually improves security, most of it appears to be a power grab by someone in charge of security, usually there's no transparency, and even C*Os aren't aware of how much they are snooped on. For example (as atp does), recording of all commands including arguments, stored in a searchable database. Who does this benefit the most?


> It's questionable how much such tools actually improves security, most of it appears to be a power grab by someone in charge of security, usually there's no transparency, and even C*Os aren't aware of how much they are snooped on. For example (as atp does), recording of all commands including arguments, stored in a searchable database.

I would agree it's often a power play for would be corporate cyber-warriors.

But the tools are very effective for certain threat categories. The downside is that they require skilled operational security people to be used effectively, and may security organizations are mostly compliance focused and don't have the talent or framework to pivot the organization. It's similar to how underperforming IT organizations were/are aligned with the CFO -- many security orgs are aligned with counsel/risk.


As a contractor or a full time employee at the 70k people companies? Was it in the past 10 years? If you used a company provided computer, did you investigate what was running? Did you go beyond the typical process manager and look into the kernel modules list?

They often don't disclose explicitly that this stuff is running, because it rightfully creeps people out and the 'security' types don't want people to know.


Contractor here, I mainly work on mega-big corporations. I always check what run on my PC. I never use the work machines for anything personal. FFS I don't even use their guest wifi. I stick to my data plan. I have noticed the last few years that BlueCoat is on the rise. From some article a couple of months back I read that the company/Fund that owned BC also bought Sophos.


Speaking of wifi, I have seen it used to check when people come to work, go on break, etc... (tracking mobile phones).


I think the parent means that if you don't agree/sign the "you can spy on me" policies, they just don't hire you.


Yes but would it always hold up in court? You can give your soul away by installing a piece of software without reading the agreement but it wouldn't hold water, of course. Curious how this would work with federal or state level wiretap laws.


Holding up in court is one facet. Needing to litigate in and of itself is typically a deterrent, especially for complex issues where there's a time/cost deterrent for pursuing combined with perception of success in court.

There's a lot you can get away with by making a process complex, arduous, and potentially expensive. Faced with that option vs letting some employer take photos of you in your pajamas without shaving while watching your every move, people tend to forego privacy.

When the working population at large starts to follow suit, you've artificially introduced a new trend with artificial social acceptance. Now, it makes a single employee battle concerned about privacy even more daunting and introduces perception of increased risk of failure if legally pursued for the employee thinking of litigating.

The end result is: privacy is eroded. Rinse repeat, for just about anything you want to change. Just make change gradual and give it time. It then takes someone with the financial and time resources to take a hit and pursue as well as eagerness to bother.


This is a really well-worded comment, thanks!


Ehhhh, the supreme court has found that you can sign away rights in a shrink wrap agreement.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/AT%26T_Mobility_LLC_v._Concepc...


Generally at work you have far fewer expectations of privacy, particularly on non-personal devices.


It's your employer's hardware. It's legal for companies to oversee the work their employees are doing.


Activating the camera and/or the microphone remotely without notification, on non-corporate owned premises may be illegal. There are wiretapping laws, etc.

Just because I own a microphone and camera doesn't mean I can use it unknowingly in your home. Even if you were to borrow it and willfully bring that camera and microphone into your home, there are reasonable expectations of privacy that can't be violated.

If I explicitly said I'll be using that microphone and camera to record you, made that very clear, and had you sign off on it without duress, then there may be grounds. The problem is, as a condition of employment, at least for me, would be a form of duress. If it becomes widespread and everyone caves into signing off on that sort of recording, then itll start to lose strength as being a form of pressure.


Camera/microphone isn't what was being discussed in this conversation thread. The topic at hand was taking screenshots of the desktop.


It's pretty common just to include it as a disclaimer in GPO:

https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/security/threat-pro...

Like this:

https://i.stack.imgur.com/NUipb.png


Many people agree to a lot more than they realize in order to get the job. And since some practices are very common, rejecting them simply locks you out of your target segment of the job market. The balance of power in most cases is heavily tilted towards the employer, things like this aren't negotiable unless you are at or close to the top.


Except that no contract can override the law, at last not where I live.


But it's not illegal to watch a video of someone with their consent. Whether an employment contract counts as consent or not is an exercise that I'll leave to the reader, but it's definitely a gray area.


You can't consent to things that are not allowed by law. If the law states that you cannot murder people, and someone consents to being murdered, you're still not allowed to murder them and it's still murder.

Murder is an example here, but there are similar laws regarding spying on people, using private information in business and reading someone else's mail. Consent does not override the law.

But to get more specific to your point and the grey area: there is a case where the law permits video surveillance (i.e. in an office) and as a side-effect some footage of a display might be captured. If the display happens to show private content, that is not actionable/admissible anymore. Some countries and laws go as far as to make dashcam recordings inadmissible and even illegal. While impractical in some cases (i.e. if your car gets bumped in to by another car while parked) it's also to prevent a government to "get all recordings of all cars in a street to find a person that might have walked by".

Some laws have exemptions like high security areas where the law explicitly states that if you are not allowed to be there expect for specific purposes, and not allowed to conduct anything there except specific tasks, and you are allowed to record the area to be able to verify it (i.e. nuclear energy plant), then that specific area is off-limits to your private activities/data. But it's not broad enough to allow any company to spy on anyone doing work for them. I suppose that might be different in the US or some US-states.


It does seem that way. Maybe not screenshots, but very often screen monitoring. And network MitM and logging, of course.

However, many firms provide WiFi APs for visitors and consultants, and employees can use them for their personal devices. So there's no need for anything personal to touch a business device.


No where is this a criminal offense in the USA. In fact, “spy software” installed on company computers is widely common.


Spying on your employee, or using covert monitoring tactics, is rarely legal. Not sure on the criminality, but privacy laws are enforceable. Also, there's a distinction between monitoring and spying.

Ex: California Social Media Law (2013)

https://readwrite.com/2013/01/15/californias-new-privacy-law...


I'm not sure how that article claims that spying is illegal. Typically it isn't illegal for a company to monitor is own equipment. That article says they can't force you to divulge your social media password. Most companies prohibit you from doing personal stuff on your work computer. I'm not saying it is right, but I don't know if any laws in America that make it illegal.


They install cameras everywhere, they have a full rootkit on your machine, they log every network interaction and email/chat and they let themselves do it through 100s of pages of policy documents that you have to sign as a condition of employment. It might as well be covert in practice.


Using snooping software for recording of all command lines, including arguments, is common practice at many companies.

Also when network connections are recorded it does not stop at a list of ips, surveillance software commonly also provide easy-to-consume search facilities and cross reference capabilities, dashboards including comprehensive history and supplied annotation, i.e can tell when and how often you visited facebook.com, what you looked at, how much time you have spent at non-essential sites, and of course it also does this when you're at home using your employer's laptop for WFH or anything else.

The same is true when using a company phone when travelling, it can not only tell your employer where you're staying currently, but also where you usually stay at your holidays.

One such software is ms atp, if you have "Advanced Threat Protection" installed, it does occur. I would be surprised if it holds up in any EU court, because when I worked with development of similar software, long before gdpr, it did not.


On this previous company we used to get a network message on every login explaining to us that since this was company hardware there was no such thing as an expectation of privacy.

They would install all kinds of stuff to monitor our computers, and continuously require explanation on why we installed this or that tool. It wasn't fun.


If this was 90s then as I remember there were not yet standards to deal with this kind of problem.

Actually, thinking about this now, I don't even remember they existed this type of software in 90s but I might be mistaken.


It definitely existed in some form by the late 90's. I recall very basic surveillance and remote control software being installed on school machines back then.


l0pht's Back Orifice tool (see: spyware) existed back then.


I think this might actually have been what he used.

I am actually still friends with the guy (we were both quite young back then, and you learn from your mistakes), and I tease him about this incident at least every few years.


Is it? What kind of crime would it fall under, and where is that?


This is illegal pretty much at least everywhere within the EU.


It is in the Netherlands, permanent surveillance of employees without a specific reason (read: related to a specific instance or incident) is not permitted.


Same in Switzerland. If there is a specific reason for surveillance the employee must also be informed of upcoming surveillance and the consequences if something were to be found.


Same in Germany, and it's not specific to IT equipment.

You also cannot monitor employees using cameras.


Wait, so is CCTV in the office not allowed??


No, not if you are not working in a bank where there is a specific reason for your employer which is for example exposure to a considerable risk of being robbed. It is also permitted if you have had problems in the past with employees stealing things from the company, but only in places where it makes sense and is proportionate.

In any case, you have to make that absolutely clear to your employees. Any unanounced surveillance is a criminal offence here.


Wait, 100 % CCTV coverage of all corporate premises is not allowed in the EU? surprised free-est country of the world noises


Public spaces, entry points yes.

Over workers, pointing at workstations no.

However, MTIM proxies by bluecoat ... Apparently is okay.


I live in the EU and I cannot think of a single law where the employeer cannot take screenshots of the machines they own. I'll be happily proven wrong though.


Here's a FAQ for the situation in Germany: https://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&u=https...

Can my boss monitor my work computer?

Permanent and comprehensive PC monitoring at the workplace based on a general suspicion is not permitted. The employer may only monitor the employee on the PC if there is sufficient concrete suspicion of improper use of the work computer.

What applies to private use of the work computer?

If private use of the work computer is expressly permitted to the employee, PC monitoring at the workplace is fundamentally excluded.

What if the boss monitors my PC even though he is not entitled to it?

If the employer does not adhere to the requirements for PC surveillance, he is punishable and in the worst case must be prepared for imprisonment.


>>If private use of the work computer is expressly permitted to the employee, PC monitoring at the workplace is fundamentally excluded.

Cool. In most places that are not fancy IT companies where everyone is given a brand new MacBook Pro to use as a mixed work/personal machine, there is no such thing as "private use of the work computer". So given what you posted, there is no legal issue then.


So did you just skip half of what they posted?

> if there is sufficient concrete suspicion of improper use of the work computer

That is when there is no legal issue.


How would a "mixed work/personal machine" not imply private use of the work computer?


It would. I said most people aren't provided with those. You sit at your desk and are given a machine to do data entry/accounting/etc all day long, not for private use.


This does not reflect reality. The employer must acquiesce in the full-time employee conducting private matters, such as making physician's appointments or checking in with one's child after school, over company owned equipment (phone/computer).


In Finland:

https://www.tyosuojelu.fi/web/en/employment-relationship/rig...

https://www.tyosuojelu.fi/web/en/employment-relationship/rig...

Take a screenshot while the employee is reading his/her personal email and the union takes you to court faster than you can say a cat :)


Only if the employee is informed upfront. Otherwise it's a privacy issue.


Let's assume they were informed upfront - there's nothing illegal about it then, is there?


It needs to be proportionate and justified. Putting an employee under an unreasonable amount of monitoring for no discernible reason could be a problem. Of course weather taking screenshots of one's monitor every 30s is or isn't reasonable would be left to the interpretation of the court.

See the link I have posted in a sibling comment: https://gdpr.report/news/2017/11/17/5383/

>The ECtHR held that the employer had breached B’s right to privacy because they didn’t inform him of the monitoring in advance and nor did they tell him that they may access the content of his communications. The previous courts had also failed to determine the reasons justifying the monitoring and whether these were proportionate to the purpose or whether the employer could have used less intrusive measures to achieve the same result.

If I read this correctly even if the person had been informed of the monitoring the evidence wouldn't have been receivable because the monitoring wasn't deemed "proportionate".


That isn't necessarily true either. IIRC, there was a case not so long ago of a school that was using quite aggressive surveillance measures, and obtained some degree of prior consent. It was still penalised under the GDPR, because all processing of personal data must be justified. Even consent is not carte blanche to do whatever you want, and that's probably a good thing for the same reason that inalienable consumer rights when you shop or employment rights when you take a job are probably good things.

Edit: Apparently there are now at least two examples of this.

In Sweden, relating to facial recognition:

https://www.gamingtechlaw.com/2019/09/fine-gdpr-sweden.html

In Poland, relating to fingerprints:

https://venturebeat.com/2020/03/06/polish-school-hit-with-gd...


Right, but both of these examples are about using personal data(facial recognition data and then fingerprints) for purposes where it's not needed. Again, I would see the issue if the employeer was taking pictures with the webcam every 30 seconds - that is definitely a privacy problem because you neither expect your employeer to be photographing you every 30 seconds, nor is it necessary for your job. But pictures of the screen? Screen that's meant to be used for work and where no reasonable expectation of privacy should exist?


It’s a common practice at most companies to allow some minimal use of company equipment to check private email etc while on break. As soon as that’s allowed a reasonable expectation of privacy exists.


You keep saying there is no reasonable expectation of privacy, but there is no basis in law for that position, at least not in the EU or UK.

I've edited my earlier comments to add some sources, including a reference to the official guidance from the UK's national data protection authority that directly states that just because someone is at work it does not mean they have no expectation of privacy. You can also find lots of public commentary from employment lawyers on the Web where they have interpreted the GDPR similarly, similar statements from other national regulators, etc. Some of these highlight tricky situations like the need to respect personal email as well.


What kind of informed? Buried in hundreds of pages of policy documents, that they make you 'acknowledge'? A separate network use agreement when employed giving cart blanche? Or something specific and upfront?


I don't know, the company I work for(in the EU) you get an email on your first day saying that the company has a private certificate installed on every machine, so they are intercepting and inspecting all of your network traffic including encrypted websites. So while allowed, please refrain from browsing your own email, bank accounts etc, as the company software can and will see the contents of those.

Like, it's pretty explicit. I don't know how different that is from just sending an email saying "hey your screen is being monitored every 30 seconds".


There's an expectation of privacy on company owned hardware?


-While I cannot recall the exact legal aspects, years ago while I was the union representative at the engineering company I worked for, the company wanted (for very valid reasons) to go through a number of E-mails sent to/from a couple of specific employees.

The E-mails were eventually read - but in the presence of the employees in question and their (chosen by them, paid by the company) legal counsel.

I can not imagine an employer going to such lengths to accommodate the employees unless required by law to do so. This was in Norway.


In the EU there is. For instance the company can't normally access directories or emails clearly labelled as "private". Monitoring can occur but it's pretty tightly regulated.

See for instance https://gdpr.report/news/2017/11/17/5383/

> * Employers can monitor employees’ emails at work but need to approach this with caution and careful consideration.

> * Follow the ICO Code and 29 WP opinion, including conducting a DPIA prior to undertaking any monitoring, considering whether it is possible to achieve the objective through less instructive means and ensuring policies clearly notify employees that monitoring takes place, why and that the content of emails may be viewed.

> * If emails are identified as or are clearly “personal” do not open unless there is a real risk of serious harm to the business and, where possible, inform the employee in advance that the content may be viewed.

I find that perfectly reasonable IMO. You're not your company's property. Your boss can't put a camera in the corporate bathroom's stall just because he owns it.


Thanks for the answer. TIL.

However, I must say that's just weird to me, because you're not required to use company resources for private matters.

The bathroom analogy doesn't really hold in my mind, since it's reasonable to expect privacy in any bathroom, but I see where you're going with that.


I think it's reasonable that if you're going to be in front of a computer for ~8hours a day from time to time you're going to do personal stuff on it. This was especially true a few years ago when smartphones and unlimited data plans weren't quite as common.

I mean sure, if it's the PC controlling some industrial machine you're probably not expected to browse Facebook on it. But if you're some temp working the reception you might have some time to kill even if you do your work properly...

There's also the situation where you're traveling and don't want to carry two laptops from instance.


You might be required to use company resource for private matters depending on what you do. You can't really choose when some of the private things will happen that need immediate reaction.


What is the legality of this? Is this just an "opinion" that a company covered by GDPR could choose to implement or not implement?


This has been part of labour protection laws all across Europe for decades.


Sorry I'm not very familiar with European labor protection laws. Which ones cover privacy concerns on workplace computers?


You should be able to find them on the Web sites of the relevant social partnership organisations, self-regulatory organisations or public rights corporations. In case of EU members, work backwards in time from directive 95/46/EC.


If you were having a conversation with a colleague in your office kitchen, and then noticed your boss was aiming a high-gain directional microphone at you, how would you feel about that?


Without consent is the key.


The mere fact that the employee is at work or using work resources has been found on several occasions to be insufficient justification for serious privacy infringements. These days it would come under GDPR or, in some member states, their national privacy laws where those are stronger.

As a rule of thumb, an employer can take reasonable steps to protect themselves as far as monitoring is concerned, often with the requirement that the subjects of the surveillance have been told in advance that it might happen. But there is always an implied requirement of necessity and proportionality in the background. Monitoring a specific employee where there is evidence to suggest they are leaking trade secrets is one thing. Routine monitoring of everyone's computers where you end up, say, recording the login details they used to access online banking and check whether their expenses have been paid yet is something very different.

Edit: Some easy-to-read sources:

https://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk/experts/legal/gdpr-implic...

https://gdpr.report/news/2017/11/17/5383/

You can also check the guidance from the various national data protection agencies, such as the ICO's publication "The employment practices code", which address this issue in quite a lot of detail.


You are wrong.


I'm wrong about not being able to think of a single law that applies here? How can you be wrong in that sense?


It’s not illegal under EU law, but illegal in some countries. EU law has lots of restrictions however, the employer needs to be crystal clear and transparent about the monitoring. The situation OP describes, would not be legal.


Same in Iceland.


Norwegian privacy law.


"privacy" is not a crime, you need to be more specific. I would maybe understand if the employer was taking pictures of the employee with a webcam, but they were taking screenshots of the machine owned by the company - how is there any expectation of privacy if you're using company equipment?


The toilet is company equipment, too.


There is an expectation of privacy when using the bathroom though. There isn't when using a company issued computer, your employeer controls all the software on it, controls the network traffic - why would anyone have an expectation that what they use it for remains private? It's like there's no expectation of privacy when using an industrial lathe - it's meant for a specific purpose, if you use it for private purposes while at work, you shouldn't be expecting that to remain hidden from your employeer.


If I take a personal note using a company-issued pen, must that be disclosed to my employer?

It's not black and white, and many people will have some expectation of privacy when using company-provided equipment.


Whether there is an expectation of privacy in toilet or on the computer is culture dependent.


> expectation of privacy

US law is irrelevant outside the US


Who mentioned US law?


You.


I updated comment.


GDPR Europe


GDRP what? If the machine is owned by the employer, why would GDPR apply here? Which specific part of GDPR applies here?


IANAL, but if the purpose of taking screenshot every 30 minutes is to control the work of the employee you must know that in the EU you have the right to be informed about any measure taken to control you.

If you can convince the judge that taking the screenshot has other purpose then GDPR doesn't apply.

From (2): The WP29 outlines that a DPIA is likely to be required if «a company systematically monitor(s) its employees’ activities, including the monitoring of the employees’ work station, internet activity» since it implies a «systematic monitoring and data concerning vulnerable data subjects» (23), form GDPR and Personal Data Protection in the Employment Context CLAUDIA OGRISEG

In (1) at point 8: the employeer has to inform the employee about: (i) whether and when monitoring is applied. (ii) the purpose of data processing, (iii) the means used for data processing.

https://legalict.com/factsheets/privacy-monitoring-work-gdpr...

Point 2) What king of personal data does an employer process, includes: Remote management of all mobile devices, such as phones and laptops;


Not in 1998 it wasn't.


prob not if you agree to it. You are getting paid to work, the computer is owned by the company so ...


Wow - at one consulting/project shop place I worked, a manager questioned the veracity of my buddy's time-sheet entries. We both quit that evening with zero notice and started our own company.


How'd that company turn out?


It was just your basic job shop, we had 8 C/C++ developers.

Everything was okay for a few years until we hired a "professional" sales guy who wrecked our project pipeline.

We handed sales over to him. He lied about prospects for eight weeks then quit to go somewhere else. We were doing okay before him, but we naively thought hiring a pro would help us grow.

We were bootstrapped so when profit/revenue looked like it was going dry up we shut down rather than go into deep debt and went back to real jobs.


> The irony was that I was probably the most productive person in that office (in my humble opinion).

It's a cognitive bias. I'm pretty sure I came across such example in Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow".


One of the many reasons why I prefer working as a contractor where I have to provide my own gear. Everything I run is by my own choice.


For those in that situation now.

I found that vming into another box stops screenshots unless that box has it on.

If on windows 10 booting to linux would work as well.


As a silver lining it sounds like you rapidly improved your company's security practices.


Two sides of the story.

One: people that are doing this are likely to have already been bad bosses. I don't think this changes anything.

Two: I work for a large bank. My director, on a town hall, told us they do understand that not everybody will be able to focus on the job as before and that they expect us to spend less time actually working and be unavailable more often. Then he URGED us to actually do so. To take time off, to deal with family problems first. He wanted us to know it is ok and that they will allow it without deducting pay so that we don't have to worry about our salaries.

I am pretty sure there will be people that will abuse this. You know what? People who do this probably have already been bad employees so not much is lost. Most people I know to be good employees feel very happy about this as a convenient option and do whatever they can to use it as little as possible. I see this as an investment that is most likely return in other ways, employee happiness, retention, engagement from the staff you really want engaged.


Yeah, I think bosses who freak out about people not being productive while working from home underestimate how much people can avoid being productive while physically at work.


Exactly. Wrong mental model. Your best bet is to hire/make/keep people interested in being productive. When this is lost there isn't going much you can do to improve productivity. Keeping employee chained to their desks will not magically make things get done. This is so naive. I wonder how humanity landed in the situation where half of all managers don't get the first thing about managing people.


Given the panic-buy, I'm sure you're right about most people thinking this will keep people productive.

I've wanted something like this before, though, when I got some bad people on my team who weren't worth what they were getting paid and were sometimes a net negative on the team. We couldn't fire them because everything was at least somewhat subjective and HR and my own boss wanted a solid case. Oh they didn't get anything done? That's subjective - maybe the assigned tasks were harder than we thought. We need more evidence. Oh they were on Facebook most of the time when I walked into their office? Maybe it was a coincidence. We need more evidence.

I feel like, "look - here are screenshots from every 30 seconds and they really spent 90% of their day farting around on dumb websites", would have ended that far more efficiently than how we eventually got rid of them. It's less about prevention, and more about a way to fix the problem when people already aren't productive.

This is ripe for abuse by bosses - but at least part of that is because of bad employees too.


I feel for any person that has to deal with this type of employee. It is very demoralizing to give responsibilities you know are not going to be handled well (but you still have to do this), it is also very demoralizing to the rest of the team to observe this unfairness go unpunished.

Still, I would focus my efforts on the productive part of the team. Making them feel safe and appreciated seems to be more worth than spying on the ones that drag the team down. People do observe how you treat team members with "problems" and will see that your measured response means they can feel safe. Safety I find to be prerequisite to healthy work atmosphere.


This is reaching for some extreme tools, while simpler solution is available. At some company size, network audit is just required. You can get information like "this person is using Facebook all the time" without actually screenshoting their Facebook screen. This solved a lot of privacy issues.


It is cheaper to hire someone like that than a really good manager. Also if you hire a lot of managers like this you end up with an organization of hundreds who are running around looking busy.


...at the same time - it can be pretty difficult to remain focused at home, especially if you also have kids at home because their schools are closed.

I doubt my efficiency is approaching even 50% of what it was a month ago.

Everyone is different.


Sure, but is spyware the thing that would change that for you? Or would you still be less productive only now also feel greater fear, further reducing your morale?


If it is a company PC - it is not illegal spyware.

Courts have repeatedly confirmed that employees have zero expectation of privacy on their work devices/sevices.


I am of the opinion that company PC is company PC and it has a right to monitor what is going on there.

But I also think employers should be responsible to ensure employees are notified of the scope of possible monitoring. Some people are absolutely clueless.

It is not that difficult, really. My company says whatever I do is subject to monitoring and there is no expectation of privacy. It also says, "Please, don't use it for anything that is not related to work".

We live in times when you can have a PC in your pocket, there is absolutely no need to do private business on company PC.


Oh, I am not productive at all right now because I have two young kids at home with me. I am at maybe 5% of my normal productivity.

You don't need an app to know that. I tell my boss every day.


It's like nobody ever watched Office Space.


It is a moral thing for people like that. They want to see 8+ hours of work a day. There is not much thought given to what was accomplished in those 8 hours as opposed to what could have been accomplished in a culture that prioritized results over the appearance of busyness.


Exactly. I don't do it on purpose but there are too many unnecessary meetings while at work. I'm being at least twice as productive at home.


#2 is super important for folks who aren't used to working remotely to take to heart. It's really easy to feel the (self-imposed) pressure to be available all the time and feel anxious because you're not doing work for 8 hours straight -- that's the road to burnout. In reality most people only do a couple hours of "heads down" work on a normal day; removing the office politics and moving to a more asynchronous communication style simply makes obvious how little "work" actually gets done at most offices.


Our CEO very much pushed the same: first and foremost look after your family. Don't stress over making paid time off numbers work out properly.

He's possibly the best CEO I've ever seen operate. And even when I'm in the office only once a year, he still knows who I am and wants to get dinner with me and the others.

I consider his existence a significant part of my compensation package when I run the numbers.


That sounds like a good work environment.

My company decided that we would likely have to go remote-only about 6 weeks ago and asked people to start planning out how to make it happen. One of the things was to redo all deadlines with the expectation that family would need to come first.


I work at a trading firm in Chicago, and it has been the same for us. They've been very understanding, and have welcomed barking dogs and crying babies in the background during our standups over zoom.


Interestingly, my workplace that has also been very reasonable about this and expects a drop in productivity, is also a bank. Have banks turned into reasonable and humane companies all of a sudden?


Ironically, 2008 caused banks to be very resilient to events like this one. Now banks are not allowed to keep large positions in their own name and should be basically neutral to whatever happens on the market. Banks are supposed to earn their living on services provided.

What this means for banks is they are doing excellent business right now.

The only significant problem is counterparty risk. As banks are basically insurers in case of some contracts they take the risk that the counterparty will default on their obligation. As large number of parties default this creates an amount of loss. But banks have also regulations to control the amount of possible loss so it is not going to be easy for any bank to bankrupt just because large number of companies go out of business.


My institution tried to implement "productivity" software during the shutdown. I, and one other director, were the sole voices of reason, saying "this is a waste of money and time when we're busy enough as it is".

We apparently were persuasive, they cancelled that buy. Then, once we were out, executive leadership tried to implement a 'task tracking' timesheet to be filled out by every employee.

I took a HUGE chance on my career. I e-mailed all leadership and the board, explaining that implementing this was needless busy work. If we were working remotely, and the expectations were that the same things were getting done, implementing something like this and NOT when we were physically present would just prove that 'management' at our institution meant control of people's lives.

We're higher education, and everyone is slightly anti-establishment in some fashion. This put the hair up on everyone's neck. One hellstorm of an e-mail thread later, and they killed that form, too.

Management just needs to realize that people fuck around at work. It is not important whether that is at physical work, or remote. It will happen. What is important is that you evaluate the work done, and, unless you're working on billable hours, evaluate whether there are more efficient ways to do business. If you enter those conversations honestly, then your people will have just enough time to fuck around, while still being super productive.

Being human is part of work. Fucking around with the people you spend a lot of time with is part of being human.


We had a bad manager at my last company who really wanted to do this sort of thing.

I said to him “So this is an interesting proposal... if we install this software then I can save on management costs by replacing your position with this spyware?” He never brought it up again and we later just got rid of him completely.

Micromanagement and this sort of spying rarely builds high performing teams. Managing worker productivity is one thing but blatant spying is a sign of much deeper problems with a company and its management.

I’ve generally found a fairly strong inverse correlation between how good a manager is and the amount of paranoia they have on their teams not doing what they should. Good managers build great teams and then trust them.


I ran into this once:

Another team (team A) needed a lot of help and my team (Team B) was 'similar'. So we were brought on to help despite Team A's objections that we surely couldn't do the job.

So we went to work and were out performing them from day 1.

Team A's management was not happy and was sure we were somehow 'gaming the system'. They had all sorts of ways and theories on how Team B must be doing it and convinced another layer of management to get someone from the outside to investigate.

They investigated and found the only folks 'gaming the system' (they were doing a lot of underhanded things to manipulate KPIs and etc).... were Team A.

Sometimes the folks out there throwing a lot of shade and being excessively suspicious only think of those things about others ... because they would do it and they assume everyone else would too.

With unfounded accusations and etc, I've found that to be true time and time again.


What happened at the end to team A?


The company was acquired and they managed to convince the powers that be (they always had more traction with them because of history) that they were worth keeping on and they could handle the workload.

So team B was laid off after the acquisition.

Last I heard team A was scrambling for warm bodies to keep up with the workload and didn't want to be seen as not being able to do the work of A + B so they were pretty much working to the bone. Also some of their management were cut as they had grown their management team under the theory that "well we've got to keep an eye on team A".

Granted there were good folks on team A who had nothing to do with the politics that I'd be happy to work with in a heartbeat, but after the layoff I decided to change professions and so I've largely lost contact with them.

I did actually apply to join team A again after some good folks asked me to apply and I did so out of curiosity, but having actually done the job for years apparently wasn't enough to make it through their resume filter and I was rejected and didn't bother to follow up ;)


Thank you so much for filling in the ending.


micromanagement is life support for low performers


That is true, and I've seen it deployed to good effect... but it's a knob you should turn when it becomes evident it is needed for a particular person, not something you just nail to "maximum" for all employees.


For those doing it or for those receiving it?


yes


Two things:

Productivity is going to plunge no matter what, with the possible exception of singles who don’t have roommates. There is no way that during an ad hoc and unorganized push to work remote (though necessary in this circumstance) can result in good productivity, monitoring or not. Under the best of circumstances it would take months for a mass of people to adjust and be productive.

The apex for open office design was reached and we’ll go back to something more normal. It’s funny people derided “cubicle farms” but we’re more or less okay being in a “bullpen” like setting cuz it was sold as being counter cultural and cool.


I'm surprised cubicles get so much hate. I loved mine at my first job. Oodles of desk space. Locking drawers and cabinets. There was a chair in the corner so a guest could sit. Made it easy to have 2 meetings without disturbing people.

less aesthetically pleasing in office photographs, but overall a much better work environment than any open plan I've experienced.


Cubicles got so much hate because they were worse than private offices that came before them. Now open floor plans are getting hate because they’re worse than cubicles so rose-colored glasses makes cubicles the nostalgic dream.


I don't think there was ever a time where every office worker had their own office. Only the big boss got their own office and everyone else had desks in a large room. The open floor plan we have now is pretty typical of what they used to look like.

Here's a good example:

https://www.officemuseum.com/1935_Auditor_of_Overcharge_Clai...

More pictures:

https://www.officemuseum.com/photo_gallery_1930s_1940s.htm


There are plenty of places where offices were the norm some years ago. When I worked in Germany the standard was either single Offices or team offices With max 5 people. In the US IBM also had offices when I contracted there. Microsoft always talked about their offices as important. Developers sitting elbow to elbow in a room with dozens of people is a fairly recent development from what I have seen. The need for headsets to get some quiet also seems fairly new.


That's interesting, but I'm unsure how much we can generalize from some photos. For example, I wonder how much "photogenic bias" [0] and survivorship bias exist in such photographic evidence. How many photographers of the time would take a picture of a hallway of private offices? And what editor would keep such photographs for posterity?

[0] There's probably a better term for this...


You're probably looking for "selection bias" in some sense, where the photos exist but they aren't being looked for so they aren't found.


THere are a bunch of places where 2 to 3 pps are in the office. I never accepted a job that didn't involve me having an office like that.


Office pictures from the Great Depression are not very convincing ;-)


I use to hate cubicles, but that was until I discovered open workspaces. For the past ten years, I've been in open workspace hell at 5 different jobs/contracts. I fucking miss the cubicle!

I've been living in cities and I think that is a big factor. Real estate is expensive. But make no mistake, open workspaces are miserable places. Cubicles still suck, but they're a massive step up from open floor plans.


I think it depends on the nature of your job. If you regularly need to interact verbally with colleagues, cubes are kind of a pain.

I forget where I saw this but there was a company that had set up what were basically "team offices" so teams that worked closely together each had their own closed room where they worked, so they could collaborate in their own manner.

Quiet when they needed it, loud when they needed it, and on their own schedule.

That seems like a good middle.


I had a setup like this. The IT Office which was its own room, then had 4 of those L cubicles in it.

If you're reading this and you have this setup - don't take the bait to move to the newly remodeled building - it's a trap!


Having worked in one of these, we found those sorts of "team offices" hurt collaboration and innovation even more than open floor plans. Unless the company is pretty small, the random conversations between people from different teams is often the key to innovation and getting problems solved early. A team room means that to ask a co-worker on another team a simple question or to just see what they are working on becomes a big deal because you are now entering that other team's space and interrupting a dozen people. Unless you really know the other person well, we found people just are hesitant to do it.

In big companies, there usually isn't a problem with communicating within a team - the problems occur when teams aren't communicating with people in other teams. These team rooms ruin any informal inter-team collaboration and communication.


My past office was just like that. 10-20 people per room, but usually less than that because people worked from home. Sometimes more than one team per room, because there where smaller teams. My room had 3 teams but we worked in a similar area, so we could bounce ideas with other team members.

It's not a good middle, it's the best possible way to work.


I had something vaguely similar at an internship. Each team was in a separate room for security reasons (aerospace firm), so the co. was all groups of 6-10 people in little open-plan offices. I thought that was nice and quiet.


Team offices are the best in my view. You actually can collaborate there without bothering other people.


In the small sample size of my jobs, cubicles are getting much shorter.

In my pre 2010 job, the walls of the cube I had were quite tall and gave reasonable privacy. In my 2016 job, they were quite short for "enhanced collaboration". I didn't really feel "safe" in my short cube, for lack of a better word.


the feeling "safe" is a good way to put it, actually.

If you feel "safe" in that manner, it increases your focus, and thus productivity.


The cubes we had at Intel were fantastic - they were super tall.

The cubes we had at Lockheed were great because they were super big.

I've hated every "open office" layout I have ever had.

I especially liked having a shared office though, sitting back-to-back in a single office, with a door - What I liked about it was that my office mate and I both liked to work with the light off, and just let the natural light from the window through (floor to ceiling window)

When you have some sense of self-privacy, and ability to block people out, your productivity is higher.

The reason why the "open office" concept was pushed, is all about cost.

Its cheaper to give people a slot at the trough, as opposed to building them an office or cube.

(Source: Former Designer and implementation builder at some of the largest open-office-concept companies you have all heard of)


>I'm surprised cubicles get so much hate.

cubicles were a step down from individual offices, and was the manifestation of commoditization of the software engineering. The transition from cubicles to open offices was the part of that process going even further. Basically blue collar workers of 196x on a large factory floor.

One would think that we've reached the peak of bad offices ... Well, i think some form of vertically stacked option is coming in the mid-term. In the short-term i think the next thing is the "cloud" style approach where no office desk is assigned permanently and coming into office you'd have to [find and]schedule a desk for yourself. That would allow to cut office space even more.


Some companies are already doing the 'hot desking' thing.

In ~2017 I did a contract with Ericsson, in their offices they had no assigned desks. Some days you'd show up in the morning and find another team had moved into your space, claiming that some other team had taken theirs. In those days we became desk refugees, wandering halls to find/take a space large enough for the team.


Mine has been hot-desking since we moved offices in 2013. There's general areas each department is supposed to stick to, but no enforcement - the groups are constantly encroaching on and intermingling with the neighboring ones.

The next stage, that we reached around 2016/2017, is "we're running out of seats; everyone should work from home one day a week to alleviate the problem". Good when you're at home, but the rest of the week becomes even more chaotic because you can't predict what the available seats will be like day-to-day.


> Well, i think some form of vertically stacked option is coming in the mid-term.

I'm fine with this. I'm surprised that airline seat manufacturers don't make versions for office use -- business class seats are much nicer than any open plan desk I've ever sat at. You are fully surrounded on all sides, your chair can turn into a bed, and inside an office you can probably stack them. Getting a couple of 30" monitors in there that are infinitely adjustable would be a challenge, and cleaning it sounds like a pain in the ass... but I'm sure these issues could be resolved if there is money in doing it.

I think people like open-plan offices because they're easy. You move into the space, have IKEA deliver a bunch of tables, and you're set up. It's cheap and it's easy.


Its called hotdesking and there are definitely some startups selling solutions to organize this


I got to witness it first hand in a fairly large financial organization. It is first come, first served - i.e. early birds get nicer window seats and if you come late there is a chance you actually won't have a desk. If someone was eating at their desk yesterday you may get grimy, smelly keyboard and spots on the screen from them showing something on the monitor with dirty hands.

After a while you get to know that this spot - letter "E" and "Backspace" doesn't work, that spot - mouse right click doesn't work, third spot - second monitor flashes every 10min...

And then there is this constant "I don't belong here" feeling. Sure it is more "efficient" from the space and hardware utilization perspective. For call centers - I don't mind the setup, but good luck to you if you are planning to build software in such environment.


Good lord, does there have to be a startup for everything? Enter office. See empty desk. Sit at desk. Work. Done.


The solutions are more along letting you check in/check out so others can find where you are in a given day.


So it's finger?


> vertically stacked option

Bunk-bed desks.


Coffin hotel offices.


Give me a decent size office over that any day.

I don't think most tech workers have really had a proper office.


The alternative isn’t open plan but an office with window and daylight. Cubicles are a little better than open plan but in the end they are still crap.


Just the movement of people in my peripheral vision alone is distracting. Then there is the chatter and constant interruptions (which I welcome in a friendly way but deep down under I don't want to be interrupted).

Cubicles with a door would be great. The ceiling can be open and have sun light coming in. Maybe the walls should be white and there should be a lamp of my own (for notes).


Disagree. There are far more reasons for people to not be productive in the office than at home. Making excuses to get coffee, the need to go out for lunch, the drive-bys and time lost walking to/from meetings, moving up and down floors... if the main motivator in your work is the fact that people can swing by and look over your shoulder, then yeah, you're better in an office.

At home I wake up and log on at 8am. In the office, my 1.5 hour commute puts me in the office at 10am on a decent day. Because I have a kid and a pregnant wife, I cut out of the office around 4 every day because that's the only reasonable way I can get home and eat dinner with my family before my kid goes to bed... but when I'm WFH, I'm often staying online past 5 and sometimes 6. To me, the difference is literally more time spent working and more time spent seeing my child vs. spending 3-4 hours commuting daily and going day-long stretches without my one year old seeing me with her own two eyes.

Working from home, I can stay productive during meetings without bothering anyone -- I can mute myself, if it's one of those meetings, and keep working.

I think anyone who fails to be as productive, or more productive, from home is someone that doesn't like their job very much. I'm lucky that I enjoy the product I work on, and I enjoy dressing comfortably and eating lunch with my wife, and drinking my own coffee, and instantly joining/disconnecting from meetings, and physically distancing myself from "drive-bys" that my production is up.


I think you are greatly ignoring employees with children. It is hard for a 4 year old to understand that when mom & dad are home that it is not a work day. They just want to spend time with mom & dad. In addition, the only thing they know of computers is playing games, so it is hard to see mom & dad on a computer doing "work".

Think of the most annoying co-worker you've dealt with constantly coming up to you and asking the least relevant question you could imagine. Multiply that by infinity and you might get close to having small kids at home.

Can this be dealt with, of course. But it takes time to get your kids to adjust to this. If you're kids are not used to you working from home, you can't just expect them to be okay with it.


This, so much.

We have a small house, which is fine because I work at the office, they're out at school, it's big enough for the times we need to be there ... oh wait.

Our upstairs is big enough for the beds, and a narrow space around each. Downstairs has no dividing walls/doors.

Now work expect equal output from me and I'm working in the kitchen with a just a gap between me and the room a toddler and 2 other children are occupying.

Perhaps if they weren't my kids, particularly my brain interrupts every time the toddler speaks, because that's how we're wired for young voices.

Now add in that the kids are used to running around screaming, literally screaming, to burn off energy .. it's not going well.

Meanwhile the bosses in their massive home offices, think everything is perfect and don't see why we shouldn't be _more_ productive than normal.

I'm waiting for when we go back wondering how their argument for why we're not allowed to home-work is going to go ...


The best and most effective way I've found to do this is to have a door that you can lock and a partner who can reassure the kids that dad/mom still cares but is just busy when the door is locked.

Of course, people who were not already setup for working remotely may not have a door they can lock and partner who can reassure.


Sure, now what about when both parents are attempting to work from home. It takes a lot more effort to coordinate when both parents need to be on a conference call to attempt to wrangle the kids away/keep quiet enough for the other to make that call.

Kids have routines, and having work-from-home parents can become part of that routine. It's not a light switch though, so training has to be given time to take hold. Probably about the time the seclusion orders are lifted if not longer.


When both parents work, it’s going to take a toll on productivity. One of the other or both parents will have to deal with all kinds of issues with small children up to maybe tweens. But even then unless they had home office setups there will be competition for space and resources —kids could be hogging the b/w and if you throttle it, whoever gets throttled is going to be unhappy with their telework or distance learning.


> Because I have a kid...

> I think you are greatly ignoring employees with children.

I think you missed something.


The parent comment could have phrased it better, but still made a good point. The grandparent comment dismissed any tricky situation with children, blaming lack of motivation to the person rather than the situation, so I think the sentiment of the parent still stands.

The grandparent is happy working from home with their 1-year old. However, they don't consider that other people's situation might be very different. For example, the 4 year old can actively try to find you.

Plus not all house layouts are the same. I've got a secluded space on a higher floor, however there are no doors and the floors/walls are paper thin, so I still hear everything that happens in the house unless I permanently use noise-cancelling headphones+music (which doesn't work that well for me).


Bullpen type offices get close to universal criticism. The only time I really see them praised is when people have variety to move to private offices when they want, to work off site, etc. When you only occasionally have to endure that environment and your productivity then isn't critical, it can be novel.

When it's a forced situation it's not something people love.

Random anecdote: I was involved with an office move once where we (a relatively small org) were choosing how to layout the new office. One individual was a fervent advocate that we needed a hip, cool open office for all that wonderful synergy, etc. So in the new space we made a hip, open space, and then classic cubicles, and everyone put in private requests where they wanted to be.

100% of the people chose cubicles. The person I mentioned chose probably the farthest away, most private cubicle.

It's not a particularly unique situation, but it's just another example that people are often full of shit. When we're imposing on other people some ideas can sound better, especially if they're trendy.

As to productivity, the majority of jobs are bullshit jobs. Reddit, HN, Slashdot in the old days have their heyday during the "work" day in the respective zones. If people achieved 5% productivity they would be more productive than they normally are in many cases.


I think less than 5% of comments on open-office design, that I have ever seen, were positive. Who are the people you are describing as being “sold”?


> I think less than 5% of comments on open-office design, that I have ever seen, were positive.

It's basically taboo to say anything positive about open office spaces online. There are many, many legitimately terrible open office workspaces in the world. Suggesting that open offices aren't always bad feels like an attack on those who are miserable in their open office. So it's safer to just never bring it up.

In the real world, a lot of people do enjoy open office style environments. They're probably the same people who went to their University's library to study in college or joined a study group so they could sit with others who were working on the same topic. Many (not all, obvious) college students choose these open, social study environments organically during college. It's reasonable to expect that they'd carry their preferences into the working world.

I have a theory that the more someone prefers isolation and being alone, the more likely they are to participate in internet comment sections and online forums. As a result, the deeper you go into internet comment sections, the more unanimously people rail against open office floor plans.

In a perfect world, we'd have a mix of companies offering both working styles and people could choose their preferred style up front. Anecdotally, I worked for a company that advertised private offices as a perk, but nearly zero of our candidates seemed to care. People tend to choose whichever company pays the best, regardless of the working conditions. I can understand why companies choose to save money on open office floorplans.


University libraries are silent. Focus is the first-class activity; groups that want to work together must book a conference room or go to a dedicated collaboration floor. You might go with your friends for company, but you’re only going to speak on e.g. trips down from the workspace to the attached coffee shop.

A “library rules” open office would be just fine. That’s not what happens, though. The point of an open office is that everyone is talking all the time. If you don’t want to hear every conversation everyone in your company is having, it’s your own responsibility to jam those signals, or leave.


Ha. University library silence seems to be in serious decline these days. Not long ago I was in one I'd describe as a cocktail party atmosphere. My theory is that universities have become more desperate to ply their students with various perks and services, they're more reluctant to crack the whip on anything that smacks of discipline.


It was the other students who would take your head off, at my school anyway. Given that there were abundant collaboration-allowed spaces, talking on a quiet floor was seen as horribly rude.


> University libraries are silent.

This is not universally true. I've done a lot of working in university libraries recently, and many of them have switched to allowing collaboration in the main spaces.

> A “library rules” open office would be just fine.

This still wouldn't work for me personally. I listen to music pretty much all the time while working, and get really sick of wearing headphones all the time. The only option is a private office. (I've gotten this by becoming a remote worker.)


Well that’s horrifying. I quite liked mine. Although only one two floors were officially collaboration, there was an informal agreement that higher floors were more strictly silent. And then there were single desks scattered throughout the stacks. You had a lot of control over the noise level based on where you choose to sit. Never needed headphones there.


This is accurate. My university has silent floors, "quiet floors" (rarely enforced), and a few well used open collaboration areas with movable furniture.


This comment is spot on. The few times I brought up open offices (which I don't like) with my coworkers, most of them favored them. They liked being able to easily have a brief chat with someone, and generally having a more social feel to the office. They worried that in an environment with private offices, it would be harder to interrupt someone with a question, and that collaboration would suffer as a result. I feel like I almost never read this perspective on Hacker News, but it's very common in the real world.


I actually enjoy open office plans despite not liking group work/study.

I prefer being alone. I don't really see people other than my wife outside of work. Work is my only chance to socialize, which makes an open office plan ideal for me. It's very easy to start conversations with the people near me and have them turn into fun group discussions.

Once you give up on the idea of having long unbroken periods of productivity, the open office plan can be a lot of fun.


If I gave up on those I would find another career. They are the whole point. Flow is 100% of what I like about software engineering.


Flow is good, and fun conversations are good. Either way, I'm having a good day and getting paid well.


I like the idea of a non-judgmental, studious open space like libraries. The idea that no one cares what I work on makes it easy to take a couple quick breaks throughout the day, and those breaks help maintain focus during the other periods. I dislike the idea that someone can "catch" me on HN in an open office.


huh, that's an interesting theory.

I like working on stuff at tech meetups. I always bring my laptop, mostly because the speakers can be boring and being in a room like that helps me focus on personal projects. I use to go to writing meetups too.

That being said, I absolutely hate open layouts. I would much rather prefer a cubical.

I'm not sure if this generalization would hold out if you surveyed people, but it might. I'd be curious.


Here's an anecdote for you.

I LOVE open offices. If you need something, you can ask. If you want to pair program with someone, they can just turn around or scoot over. You can tell if the person you need to get help from is busy without leaving your chair. Hell, even the distractions are nice. I've never felt closer to coworkers than when I've worked in an open office. I like the occasional nerf dart whizzing past my head. Work is 8 hours of your day, it should be enjoyed.

I've had my own office and it was miserable. It was lonely and I felt like I never got to know my coworkers. If I needed face to face time with someone I'd have to physically walk down the hall and hope they were in their office. It also put a larger barrier to asking for help, which slows things down.

I'm well aware that not everyone is like me and some people don't like open offices. That's fine, but it doesn't mean that open offices are inherently bad.


I don't hate open offices exactly, as long as management agrees that I'm going to be 25% less productive that way. It's kind of working on a VT-100 instead of a 28" monitor. Unfortunately, in my experience, that's a condition that's lost on most managers.


> If you need something, you can ask.

That's almost like having Skype...

> You can tell if the person you need to get help from is busy without leaving your chair.

...with a status icon.

Well, people are different. I guess we introverts need to find some other job, because we are obviously no longer welcome in IT.


Sadly I feel this is very true. IT was the last refuge of the introverts and social awkwards/outcasts. Now that the extroverts have taken over and tend to be the ones making the rules, IT is becoming more and more unbearable. Couldn't just let us have this one thing?


Managers and executives.

1. Cheaper rent because you need less space 2. Easier to look over shoulders and on to computer monitors

Managers (especially product managers) delude themselves into thinking this spurs collaboration and creativity and productivity.


As a former pm I can't think of a single colleague who loved open plan. We at best tolerated but I think every one of us would have been a happy recipient of an office!


Also cheaper because cubicle scaffolding costs $$$.


Open offices are great if you don't optimize for people per square meter. I did my onboarding in Boston. The company just moved to this office so there was a ton of space. Teams were far apart so it wasn't noisy. And this open space just felt great. I never worked in an open office so I was sold

A year later when I visited there were twice as many people. It was still okay to work there but noisier.

The last time when I visited was really bad. Desks everywhere, people 1 meter apart. I couldn't really work there in a productive way.

We should start to build offices for "free range" engineers.


I think it is people who control purse strings. One big problem is that majority of today's management is indulged in a bad faith argument of collaboration and innovation as benefit of open office. Management can own up and say its gonna save them money and it will continue with open office policy.

At that point employees may not like it but it would make clear that they need to put money where their mouth is and demand a separate cube etc at work as part of job offer. Not getting it would be like so many other compromises that we make in life and has to be endured.


I loved the open office I worked in (as an IC).

When I worked at reddit, we all sat in a single conference room in the corner of the Wired office. There were five of us doing engineering. A huge whiteboard on one wall (with a couch underneath for naps), windows on two walls, and the fourth wall was the door.

It was great. We all had headphones so we could work when we want. When some people needed to collaborate on the whiteboard, we just got up and did it. Usually everyone else ended up joining in, unless they were already deep in their work and didn't notice.

It was the perfect balance of collaboration and privacy.

But it probably worked so well because "the boss" was more like a peer, so you didn't feel watched. He was working on code right beside you.

And when we played games, it was great because you screen cheat off of Steve and he couldn't tell. ;)


That wasn't really an open office. The usual open office is one open space for 50+ and sometimes hundreds of people. It's an awful place to work. There is usually a lot of distracting noise.

What you described is something like I worked in. We had separate rooms for most teams(15 people or less). You could collaborate with fellow team members, which usually relevant for the whole team, but wasn't distracted by other teams. As you said it's the perfect balance of collaboration and privacy.


You can't build an open office with 5 people. That's a single-team office, what is a very different thing.


I said something about how bad open offices are recently IRL to my girlfriend and was a little surprised when she said she likes them, given how hated they are on HN. But I think the key factor is that her work typically involves coordinating and collaborating with a bunch of different people throughout the day, pretty much the opposite of what I do as a remote software dev.

I think that open offices are bad for most of the jobs people on HN have, but are probably fine for certain others.


I’m single with no roommates and my productivity is wayy down due to the mental stresses of both the times we’re in and the huge drop of social fulfillment (used to play hockey 5x a week, other group things 2x, and individual friend hangouts too) - zoom chats just aren’t the same.

I also very much need that “work” space to switch my brain into focus mode. My place has never been setup for work-focus as I work at a place that encourages not taking your work home with you - though I am thankful that now we are fully enabled to WFH rather than lose that paycheck.


Single person with no roommates, I can confirm that my mental health is slipping and it's really hard to maintain a positive attitude at work. Productivity will slip and employers just need to adjust their expectations.


I think mental health and productivity is slipping for everyone for reasons unrelated to remote work as well. Namely there is a global pandemic, a good chunk of the economy is shut down, and the flaw of "many out of work and many working overtime" has been exacerbated. Not to mention the denial of many closed non-essential outlets.


I'll counter this with my enjoying the extra 90 minutes a day from no commute and how much healthier I'm eating by not going out to restaurants all the time. WFH means I can get up at noon and go stretch or workout and I have time to cook a real breakfast or lunch.

Stress levels are lower, my back feels better, and my home workouts are going great!


I'm married with two children and I can assure you that not only has my mental state slipped because of the stresses of home life, but I also lost an enormous amount of social activity that I intentionally maintained in order to keep my brain and health at optimal levels.

I am OK, but my productivity is toast.


Not trying to one-up you here as having a family brings different forms of stress I can't speak to, but it's really hard to go for a week without interacting with another human being. Social connection is core to who we are as humans; cutting that off is like removing a limb.


Both of you are correct; this sucks for everyone.

It may be worth keeping in mind that this, too, will pass.


It's interesting, family meets a distinct need. I've started working with technical peers and it's wonderful to be with others who can stretch your understanding, even just know what you're on about if you talk technically.

Entirely different to the mentoring, caring, parenting, intimate interactions with kids (and my wife).


Yes I think employers who understand work dynamics know and expect a severe drop in productivity and work with that in mind.


You play any online games?


welcome to my world.


I'm living with my partner. We both work remote. Not sure about her, because her job (teaching) is not super-well suited for remote work, but my productivity remains about as high as before. Granted, I tended to be remote 1 day / week even before All This. I would also guess that if I didn't have my partner sharing the flat with me, my mental health & therefore productivity would be lower.

(As for monitoring, yeah, stuff like that mentioned in the article would never fly here in Finland. We have very strict privacy laws, and the employer cannot do whatever they please.)


I honestly believe I'm as productive now as I was at the office, not that it matters for gov work anyway.

I'm able to complete tasks just as well here as at the office.


> with the possible exception of singles who don’t have roommates.

And those who were already working remote. I do, and I've actually found it easier at meetings, where I'm not the only one on the screen anymore.


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