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Even If You're Working From Home, Your Employer Is Still Keeping Track of Your Productivity—Here's What You Need to Know

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The continued spread of COVID-19 is forcing millions of Americans to work from home. As many workers shift to a new reality, they and their managers may be concerned about staying as productive as possible. 

Although it may be tempting to slack off work when stuck inside the comfort of your home, proceed with caution — your boss could be watching. 

About half of large companies use some type of monitoring techniques to keep tabs on their employees, including methods like analyzing texts of emails and social media messages and gathering biometric data, according to a survey from the research and advisory company Gartner in 2018. The company surveyed 239 large corporations. 

Brian Kropp, chief of research in Gartner's HR practice, expects 80% of companies to use similar technology by the end of 2020. 

Individual managers usually do not have access to the employee monitoring software, explains Kropp, but the information is aggregated by vendors into reports that are then given to specific executives for review. 

Historically, employers tracked employees in order to figure out how to improve their work experience and help with their productivity, says Kropp. But when it comes to remote work in this unprecedented time, managers have to adjust to a new normal, with significantly less face time with their direct reports. 

"Like it or not, as employers, we have to get comfortable with the idea that employees are working from home," said Kropp. "Then comes the question of, how do we make sure that they are working productively from home? Not just working from home." 

Here are some of the ways employers may be keeping tabs on you.

Monitoring your work laptop

There are numerous ways employers can track workers' productivity. If you are using a work laptop or are connected to your company's virtual private network, your employer has the ability to monitor nearly everything you do.

Keystroke monitoring allow managers to track, record, log and analyze keyboard activity of workers. Other companies, like ActivTrak and VeriClock, give insight into workers' online activities and how they utilize their time. 

Checking to see if you're really paying attention while screen sharing

Methods of instant communication like the messaging service Slack and video-conferencing service Zoom are essential nowadays to connect with others while working remotely, but they also offer monitoring features for your employer.

 Zoom's monitoring features have been put in the spotlight recently; specifically, some have expressed concern about a feature that allows hosts to see that a participant has not had the Zoom app in focus, if they are off of it for 30 seconds, while the screen-sharing feature is in use.

According to Zoom, its attention-tracking feature is built for training purposes.

It does not apply to Zoom video; it only applies to screen-sharing, the company told CNBC Make It in an email.

The feature is off by default and is only enabled by an account administrator. Meeting hosts can also disable the feature. The feature only tracks whether the Zoom app window is open.

Zoom stresses that private chats are not made available to meeting hosts. 

Reading your Slack messages

Slack allows workspace owners to read private messages between workers, so consider only professional communication. "In your interactions in Slack or whatever," said Kropp, "you should behave the exact same way as if you were at work." 

Slack did not immediately reply to CNBC Make It's request for comment.

"To protect employees in the workplace, laws and regulations govern specifically what access is permitted by employers," Slack previously told NBC in a statement. "When extracting any data from Slack, employers must always comply with all employment laws, contracts and privacy protections for employees."

How to stay focused, whether you're being monitored or not

To be sure, it's not possible to focus every second of every work day, especially during this unprecedented time.

But there are ways to help you stay on track as much as possible while you work remotely.

You may want to start with a morning routine, Kropp says. Turning on the computer right after rolling out of bed is not enough to get you into the habit of staying focused.

Kropp says creating a "mental commute" to work is necessary. Whatever routine or habits you had prior to your commute to work, like putting on your work clothes, is necessary to get you in the habit of things. "One of the advantages of having that commute is it creates a mental separation between home and life," said Kropp, "so you have to create that same virtual commute to work."

Also, nothing stops workers from distracting activities like checking social media in the office or at home, but that is no excuse for productivity to be affected. "What stops them from going on social media when they are in the office?" asked Tony Lee, vice president at Society for Human Resource Management. "Nothing changes. You should continue being just as productive at home as you were in the office." 

Another way to maintain professionalism and productivity while working from home is creating separate spaces for work and "life work," explains Kropp. For example, designate the dining room table exclusively for your work, and the kitchen table is where you can take care of mail, bills and personal projects.

"In order to be effective," said Kropp, "you have got to have a space for work and your space for life."

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the ability of managers to access messages on Zoom.

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