David Heinemeier Hansson

May 31, 2022

Employee surveillance software is managerial bankruptcy

Moving to remote work has brought out the worst in some managers. It's revealed their insecurities and paranoia, and caused them to address these in a spectacle of incompetence. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the continued surge in interest for employee surveillance software, which risks turning a working arrangement that should be high on autonomy, flexibility, and creativity into one dominated by suspicion, anxiety, and dread. It needn't be this way.

Maybe, just maybe, I can in retrospect forgive the knee-jerk impulse of managers breed in an office-only world their reach for surveillance-ware when the pandemic first broke out. You could at least claim then that it was all so new, that it was a highly stressful time, and that you made your mistakes out of pandemic-induced ignorance and fear.

We still tried to arrest that development back then, in our small little way, by banning surveillance-ware from integrating with Basecamp. Advocating, from experience, that surveillance wasn't the way. Speaking as experts who'd been running a remote company for over twenty years, written a whole book about it, and building healthy software products for working in this "new" way.

But sadly the push for surveillance-ware, or bossware, or whatever you want to call the nasty proliferation of software that activates employee webcams to ensure butts are in seats, takes screenshots of their computer desktops at regular intervals, or scans everything entered on the keyboard with AI snitch filters, has continued unabated.

Two years after those frantic first months of the pandemic, you can't claim ignorance or fear as excusable reasons to carry on like this. Now you have to accept that if you're a manager reaching for surveillance systems to supervise employees, this is just who you are.

At least there's some hope that employees just won't stand for it. In a new survey by Axios, half of tech workers say they'd resign if subjected to these surveillance systems. Perhaps that tune is going to change now that tech layoffs have picked up dramatically in the last few months, but I hope not.

When we wrote passionately about remote work in REMOTE: Office Not Required back in 2013, it was because it offered such a sweet two-sided deal. This was good for (most) employees, and it was good for employers. Higher productivity, better work products, more creative solutions accrued to the employer. Greater flexibility, freedom from the commute, and asynchronous collaboration accrued to the employee. Everybody wins!

But you can spoil that shared victory in a heartbeat if you, as a manager, fail to transition from the antiquated line-of-sight style of supervision to one based on evaluating the quality of the work. These dreadful surveillance tools seek to entrench the former. They try to recreate management by counting hours in the seat in front of the screen – a method that never worked to begin with! – but with an even more demeaning system than the old parody of a pointy-haired boss scouting across the cubicle walls.

It needn't be this way. Remote work might have seemed like a mixed blessing during the pandemic, but it's a real breakthrough in work-life relations during more normal times. Don't you dare spoil the bargain with this surveillance poison bullshit.

About David Heinemeier Hansson

Made Basecamp and HEY for the underdogs as co-owner and CTO of 37signals. Created Ruby on Rails. Wrote REWORK, It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work, and REMOTE. Won at Le Mans as a racing driver. Fought the big tech monopolies as an antitrust advocate. Invested in Danish startups.