A work-from-home tool lets you take a real break while tricking your micromanaging boss and judging coworkers into thinking you’re still at the keyboard

Rehaan Adatia's original hack for staying online while taking breaks.

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Rehaan Adatia’s original hack for staying online while taking breaks.
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Rehaan Adatia
  • More people are working from home than ever before because of the coronavirus.
  • That has created tension between managers concerned about productivity suffering and workers who are urged – or even required – to always be at their computer.
  • Lurk From Home aims to fix that problem by letting people take breaks without appearing offline by tricking programs like Microsoft Teams and Slack into thinking they’re still working.
  • But he says his goal is actually to improve people’s productivity by allowing them to release stress and maintain better work-life balance.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The coronavirus pandemic has forced millions of people around the world to work from home full time – many for the first time in their lives – and the transition hasn’t always been seamless.

By now, we’ve all seen plenty of horror stories about Zoom calls gone wrong, kids interrupting at the worst possible moments, and the difficulties of staying productive while also maintaining your mental health.

Research shows that a big part of that means taking breaks to parent, eat, or just get some fresh air and give your mind a chance to refocus.

But some workers haven’t felt able to do that, either because of demanding employers and managers who are concerned about productivity suffering – or simply because employees don’t want to give coworkers the impression that they’re slacking off.

In-person workplaces allow your bosses and colleagues to see when you’re on the job, but now many companies have become reliant on tools like Microsoft Teams or Slack to determine when someone’s “at their desk.” Some have even turned to virtual private networks and webcams to constantly monitor employees throughout the day.

That’s increased stress levels for some employees – but it also inspired Rehaan Adatia, a consultant at KPMG, and Haris Akbar, a post-doctoral fellow at Vertex Pharmaceuticals, to find a way to help people working from home reclaim some control over their schedules.

“We were seeing an uptick in these micromanaging initiatives taken up by managers to really check in a little bit further on their employees,” Adatia told Business Insider, adding that a survey they sent around online confirmed that others were having difficulties taking breaks without prompting questions from managers or judgment from coworkers.

So they built Lurk From Home, a tool that tricks work chats and productivity-monitoring software into thinking someone’s still at their computer using a Java plugin to intermittently move the mouse or play a media clip in the background to keep their screen active.

It’s invisible to the human eye, but Adatia said it was enough to trigger activity logs for Slack, Cisco Jabber, Microsoft’s Teams, Skype for Business, and Lync, as well as VPNs that may track what workers are up to throughout the day.

From hardware hack to software for hard workers

Adatia said he and Akbar didn’t build Lurk From Home to enable people to be lazy, and he’s mindful of companies that might perceive it that way and try to block their tool.

“I can see why the perception would be that this is more of a laid-back tool,” Adatia said. “But we believe that this gives our users peace of mind, and that actually helps them inversely perform better when they’re at their desk.”

Adatia said the original idea for Lurk From Home came about years earlier during a part-time internship he had one summer that let him work remotely but also gave him tasks that didn’t take the entire week to complete.

“I had basically figured out how to automate all of my work,” he said. But he was still worried that efficiency may be perceived as laziness if he wasn’t available on his work chat.

Adatia’s solution at that point was to open a blank document on his laptop, place a coffee mug on his keyboard, and clamp the lid down so it kept typing, making his work chat think he was online.

Lurk From Home may be a slightly more high-tech hack, but as more companies encourage remote work moving forward, Adatia said tools like it would become even more essential.

That’s why he and Akbar are now building additional features to encourage productivity and make working from home less isolating, like reminders to take breaks and ways to connect with coworkers and network, Adatia said. While Lurk From Home is a free tool, he hopes the additional functionality is something employers might pay for.

“Long term, I think our goal is to develop an entire suite of different tools for those working from home, not specifically just related to productivity,” he said.