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BLOG: Can a VPN log really point to employee slacking?

Ted Samson | March 6, 2013
Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer cited low VPN usage as a reason to kill telecommuting, but that metric misses an awful lot.

Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer's decision to ban telecommuting has understandably generated a buzz, which has since grown louder after we learned what sparked her decision: She discovered that remote employees weren't logging into the VPN enough. Low VPN usage means low remote-worker productivity, she concluded, which is at least part of the reason she decided to require all employees to starting showing up at an office.

Her decision has garnered a mixture of praise from some onlookers alongside plenty of second-guessing and backseat CEO-ing from others. Supporters have commended Mayer for having the technical acumen to check VPN logs, a skill that the majority of CEOs likely don't possess. Critics, however, have argued that VPN logs aren't an adequate tool for measuring worker engagement and productivity -- not to mention Mayer's move strikes an unfair blow to the telework movement.

The reality is, VPN logs can provide at least some evidence as to which workers are pulling their weight and which ones aren't. However, that only works when companies make employees connect via VPN consistently and when supervisors or IT monitor VPN usage on a regular basis.

One of my favorite recent examples of a VPN revealing slacking employees comes from Verizon. Earlier this year, the company revealed how it helped one of its customers, a U.S.-based company, figured out that one of its highly paid developers (dubbed Bob) had been outsourcing his six-figure job to China for months. Bob wasn't even particularly subtle about it; he physically shipped his RSA token to the third-party contractor, enabling the person to log in under his credentials during the workday. The unauthorized VPN connection to Shenyang, China was present in months' worth of log data. Somehow, the scam had been entirely overlooked.

That's one real-world example of how a company can weed out slackers using a VPN log. Sure, there are such obvious questions as, "Why didn't the company's IT team notice the unauthorized connection to China earlier?" and "Why didn't anyone notice that this particular employee was using the Internet to connect to YouTube, eBay, and Reddit all day?" Notably, he did have years' worth of positive performance reviews, citing code that was "clean, well-written, and submitted in a timely fashion," which may have helped him fly below HR's radar and perhaps even his manager's radar. But how did IT miss it?

That leads to Mayer's decision to ban telecommuting, purportedly because she'd found employees weren't connecting to the VPN enough. Critics may rightly argue you can't always measure employee engagement or productivity based on how often they connect to the VPN. For starters, some remote employees simply may not connect to the VPN every day, be it because they don't know it's a requirement, they don't know how, their VPN client isn't properly installed, or they just don't want to. That doesn't necessarily meant they aren't doing their jobs: One can access email, write documents, and perform all sorts of work-related tasks without being connected via a VPN.

 

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