The Virtual Productivity Complex: An Investigation of Fake-Keyboard Syndrome

That’s the most recent twist in the struggle to oversee employees’ work lives in an era that began with widespread demands for remote work and is now concluding as a near-global pandemic. It’s clear that, whatever the form of surveillance, the pressures to display ‘productivity’ will drive the creative efforts to evade it. Consider the recent firing of several Wells Fargo employees who, the bank says, were caught ‘faking’ at their keyboards.

Keyboard Simulation: The Wells Fargo Wake-Up Call

Gone in an abrupt turn of events are more than a dozen bankers in Wells Fargo’s wealth and investment management division, who ‘had been observed manipulating their keyboards to simulate working or even had direct coaching instructions to do so, which ultimately created the appearance of being busy on their screens’, according to Bloomberg, which conducted a thorough investigation and which I verified via a search on the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) dataset. Undeniably, some workers are doing plenty to make it seem like they are busy while working from home.

Remote Work and Surveillance: A Match Ignited by the Pandemic

As the Bloomberg article notes, the dramatic upsurge in remote working associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has engendered a growing reliance on such surveillance software to police the behaviour of staff outside the physical confines of the office, ostensibly to ensure that its output is undisturbed by these domestic diversions. Possibly the most unsettling aspect, however, is captured by the Bloomberg report not being entirely clear ‘whether these deceptions occurred in employees’ homes or at the office’. It is no coincidence that work has become something we now do at home 24/7, or that our homes have become something we can do work in all day.

The Return to Office Mandate: Wells Fargo's Response to Remote Work Challenges

When the pandemic restrictions lifted, Wells Fargo was one of several financial firms that pushed for an easing back into the office. In February of 2022, the company unveiled a ‘hybrid flexible model’ that requires most staff to be in the office on at least three days a week, with higher management expected to come in for four. Wells Fargo’s announcement came amid a wider effort in the financial industry to reset workplace norms and recover a sense of co-operation, oversight and, above all, accountability.

Unveiling the Techniques of Work Simulation

It is impossible to be sure exactly how these now-former Wells Fargo employees faked their activity – a question that is, by the way, being answered by a host of devices advertised on the digital marketplace. On AMAZON, for example, you can find sales pitches for everything from software programs (such as AutoHotkey) to dedicated physical ‘mouse jiggers’ and ‘keyboard press simulators’ that sell for between $30-60, which will automate keystrokes or mouse movements to fool APM systems into believing that a human is at work.

The Ethical Quandary: Navigating the Grey Zones of Productivity

The Wells Fargo incident opens a Pandora’s box of ethical dilemmas about employee surveillance, job autonomy and the steps some workers take to appear or actually become more productive. Beyond the bank’s stale statement to the press patting itself on the back for its high ‘ethical standards’, the larger debate now includes the trade-offs between trusting workers and managing them more closely in the emerging workplace.

A Closer Look at AMAZON’s Role in the Work-From-Home Era

But one of the epicentres is the corporately policed space of an AMAZON, a business whose far-reaching market of products for evading corporate surveillance enabled the very trend it now facilitates. Software to simulate keyboard inputs and gizmos to keep a mouse cursor moving are just two among many devices offered on Amazon’s bazaar for bypassing methods of corporate surveillance on the rise. Amazon’s warehouse is a monument to anthropological genius and the degree to which humans will go to bend reality in the name of adapting to the digital way of life. The debate over productivity, surveillance and ethics is just beginning as automation continues to push the boundaries between work and life.


In the end, the Wells Fargo story is, in some ways, a small example of all the thorny issues and questions raised by employers and employees who live and work online. As we hurtle further into this brave new world, AMAZON and similar platforms will almost certainly become the foremost arbiters of how we learn to think about and structure our relationship to effort – and may well set the terms of the debate over where the lines of acceptable behaviour are for years to come. If all this holds true, then the future of work will look very different after it’s over than it does right now.

Jun 14, 2024
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