An Aussie boss who suspected his staff were “taking him for a ride” while working from home took matters into his own hands by tracking their call logs.

The director of a company — who can’t be named for legal reasons — knew something was wrong when contribution to work chats dwindled, email responses slowed and a growing number of calls went unanswered.

“The time between calls started to get longer,” he said of three sales staff he eventually fired.

“Instead of a call every 15 minutes, it was every 20 minutes and then every half an hour. And then there’s like two hour gaps of nothing happening … it showed staff being absent; starting small, but the absence would get longer and longer.”

He’s not the only Aussie boss that’s resorted to monitoring staff working remotely.

This week, news.com.au revealed an insurance worker was fired after 18 years with the company after surveillance showed she wasn’t typing enough on her laptop.

While many companies were forced to quickly adjust to an overhaul of working structures as the pandemic hit, the business owner who fired three people after monitoring them was already ahead of the game.

That’s because his website-based company, which serves customers throughout Australia, has never had a physical office.

“We worked at home very successfully before Covid, but I think it was a bit of a cultural shift where people’s attitudes changed and they started testing what they could get away with,” he said.

“I guess they might have had their peers starting to also work from home (due to Covid), and they probably wanted to catch up with them, that sort of thing.”

He never considered himself a boss that closely monitored staff. He felt it was obvious when people were doing their work, simply based on tangible output and results.

But when he began noticing a progressive lag in responses and increasing uncontactability among certain workers whose roles relied upon making and taking phone calls, a seed of doubt was planted.

“We did have some tracking in place through our CRM (Customer relationship management) Pipedrive,” he said.

Pipedrive is a cloud-based software company which essentially acts as an advanced calendar where staff enter tasks, reminders, and scheduled or completed calls.

The boss began investigating the entries of the staff he suspected were not working.

“So typically, a salesperson is probably going to get between four and 10 calls an hour,” he said.

“Someone might ring and they’re busy, they might say call me back in half an hour. So that’s logged as a one-minute call. And then they might have another conversation for say five-to-ten minutes. And for each call you put a note — but those things started to not happen. No notes were being left.”

Following further inquiries, he discovered that not only were calls not being logged, but many that were found to be “ghost calls” — or fake entries.

Within 18 months, he fired three employees after tracking their call logs and determining they were doing insufficient work.

He said he did “everything by the book” and no sacked employee had grounds to launch legal action given the proof he’d gathered. After a dispute about wage payouts was resolved, they accepted their employment termination.

As for tracking the rate of keyboard strokes, which was the undoing of former IAG consultant Suzie Cheik, he felt it was generally “a step too far” because staff should feel trusted.

“If you’ve got a great employee, I’d never dream of putting that on him or her,” he said.

“Some business owners I know refuse to put trackers in their fleet of cars, because they don’t want their staff to feel like they’re keeping an eye on them.”

But, he said if someone was “deliberately trying to game the system,” perhaps there was the occasional case for keystroke technology.

“Many of us have that friend a couple of degrees of separation away who’s boasting about taking their employer for a ride, in some way or another, especially during the pandemic,” he said.

“Staff knew their businesses had vulnerabilities. It was hard to recruit, operating was difficult. And they leveraged that to be a bit more mischievous.

Sometimes employers are made out to be the bad guys — but some of us are just small companies doing our best”.

But not all bosses felt keystroke tracking should only target workers already suspected of underperforming.

The head of an IT company focusing On agriculture told news.com.au he used technology that monitored keyboard movement, tracked mouse touches and took computer screenshots.

He chose to remain anonymous because his staff were not aware they were being watched.

“The nature of the work we do almost entirely revolves around staff being on their laptops,” he said.

“There’s a lot of independent work needed … when they’re using devices owned by us (while at home) and we aren’t physically there to see what they’re doing, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to monitor what they’re doing on those devices in the hours we’re paying them”.

Without specifying, he said the technology was an example of a tool known as “bosswear” which tracks computer movements to measure productivity.

Over the time he’d used the software, he’d been mostly happy with his team’s performance — which he said was all the more reason not to disclose its use.

“It’s important to keep up rapport as I don’t want people to think I don’t trust their work ethic. I doubt they’d be impressed with (the monitoring), but if they’re doing their jobs it’s irrelevant,” he said.

Business system information experts confirmed online monitoring is rapidly growing in use worldwide — with a huge industry of companies that develop these technologies.

Uri Gal, professor of business information systems at the University of Sydney, said the most extreme tools install a silent agent on the machine which acts like a fly on the wall and records everything done on the laptop.

As was the case with the anonymous IT bosses’ oblivious employees, many workers remained unaware of their “Big Brother” bosses, given the lack of legal requirement for employers to share the technology they use.

The sacking of insurance consultant Suzie Cheikho made headlines earlier this week after she was fired in February for missing deadlines and meetings, being absent and uncontactable, and failing to complete a task which caused the industry regulator to fine IAG.

She was put on a performance improvement plan after a review of her output and was subject to a detailed monitoring of cyber activity, which analysed the number of times she physically pressed her keyboard on 49 working days from October to December.

The review found she had “very low keystroke activity”, averaging 54 strokes per hour over the duration of her surveillance.

Ms Cheikho took her case to the Fair Work Commission (FWC), claiming she did not believe the data “for a minute” — though she could not provide proof of its unreliability.

The tribunal ruled she was sacked for a “valid reason of misconduct” given she was “not performing work as required”.

While not responding to new.com.au’s request for comment, Ms Cheikho slammed the media and her former employer (IGA) in a TikTok live stream, saying she’s furious at the media coverage and declaring she “can’t get a f**king job”.

— With Frank Chung

Got a story? Clare.sibthorpe@news.com.au



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