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Mouse Jigglers, Fake PowerPoints: Workers Foil Bosses’ Surveillance Attempts

Companies that track employees’ productivity run up against their inventive workarounds

By Douglas Belkin and Lindsay Ellis, WSJ

Jan. 11, 2023 10:11 am ET

In a time of hybrid work, employers are extra-focused on making sure their staffers are being productive.

Now come employees with work hacks to keep the bosses off their tails.

Lisa Crawford works in marketing from her home in Phoenix. She says she is wary of her computer falling asleep when she gets up to throw in a load of laundry or prep ingredients for dinner. She might miss the ping of an email from a supervisor and be slow to reply.

Her solution? Sloth TV, a live-cam of a Costa Rican wildlife rescue ranch, where volunteers feed cute baby sloths for the viewing audience.

Ms. Crawford pulls up the stream on a second monitor. Her computer stays awake to hear notifications that pop up so she can dart back to her desk.

As a bonus, she keeps up to speed on sloths. “Watch as they take naps, snack, snuggle in their blankets, go for an adventurous climb, and even get fed by our caretakers!” says the live-cam site.

Since the start of the pandemic, an estimated third of medium-to-large U.S. companies have adopted some kind of worker-surveillance system, bringing the overall share of employers using such systems to two out of three.

Others tally badge swipes into the office or make lists of less-productive employees, in case a recession calls for layoffs. Or they hire consultants to identify quiet quitters, the buzzy term for employees who do what is in their job description and no more.

A September report by Microsoft Corp. described a “paranoia” in which 85% of business leaders said they questioned whether their hybrid workforces were being productive (even though, the report said, people generally are working more than ever). That has led to “productivity theater,” the report added, in which some employees try to show they’re busy by doing things like joining meetings they don’t need to be in.

Workers nationwide are sharing their ways to outsmart supervisors, guard their personal lives or just avoid looking like shirkers.

Career coaches such as Sho Dewan provide lessons on techniques. Early in his career, while between consulting projects, Mr. Dewan would wake at 8 a.m., open a PowerPoint slide on his laptop and click “present,” he says. He wasn’t outlining strategy for a client. No one else was seeing the slides. Mr. Dewan had learned that his computer wouldn’t go to sleep or mark him as “idle” during a presentation.

His computer being alert meant he didn’t have to be, and he would catch more sleep.

Mr. Dewan dashed off a TikTok video on the strategy in October. His slide was all white, with black text reading “REALLY IMPORTANT WORK MEETING” centered on the screen. “Just hit ’slideshow,’ and you’re good,” he says to the audience as he flashes a thumbs-up.

The tutorial got more than 10 million views and drew more than 1,600 comments.

“Explains why I see people presenting for 5 hours,” one responder cracked.

“And this is why the people that HAVE to be in office are asking for more money,” another wrote.

Mr. Dewan wouldn’t necessarily recommend his maneuver. Using it too much is probably a sign the worker should get a new job, he says.

When Mohamed Abbas’s job went remote early in the pandemic, the management assistant liked the idea of being at his home in Barstow, Calif., collecting pay of $27 an hour.

Then friends in the IT department shared some bad news. Work computers would shut down if left inactive for more than 10 minutes. Bosses would know who was away from their desks.

That irked Mr. Abbas. His responsibilities included setting up training for new employees, coordinating calendar invites for meetings and handling travel vouchers. Sometimes there was none of that to do, he says, yet “they still wanted us logged on. It didn’t make any sense.”

Mr. Abbas wrapped the cord of his computer mouse around a rotating desk fan. Its motion kept the mouse moving and prevented his computer from shutting down. “I logged on, went to the gym,” he says.

Another time, Mr. Abbas says, he opened the notes application and placed a lock on the keyboard over the letter C. The page filled up with row after row of the letter while he stepped out.

For workers who aren’t as handy, mouse jigglers are for sale on Amazon. “Push the button when you’re getting up from your desk and the cursor travels randomly around the screen—for hours, if needed!” says one review.

Employees who go to the office also are sharing tips for dealing with productivity-focused bosses. “A desk covered with papers makes it look like you’re in the middle of 5 things at once,” advises a Reddit thread.

What annoyed Ma Treeka Rogers, when she was a sales manager at fashion retailer Forever 21 in Dallas, was that when employees like her were taking 10 minutes in the break room, “the managers would just keep interrupting you with questions about work.”

So she stacked her breaks on top of her half-hour lunch to make a nice stretch of time, then sat in her car and watched “Grey’s Anatomy.”

The first rule of all such strategies is to keep them quiet, to stay employed while looking for a new job, says Leigh Henderson, a human-resources executive in San Antonio who moonlights as an online coach.

Years ago, back from a vacation to a job she had quietly quit, she found 800 emails in her inbox. She deleted them all, on the assumption that if any were important, people would resend. Only a few did.

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