Leah didn’t expect her TikTok video about a work-from-home hack to go viral. She started using a mouse mover—a small device placed under her computer mouse, to keep the cursor active—after her job as a business lead in advertising transitioned to remote work at the start of the pandemic. Her company-issued computer set her status to “away” whenever she stopped moving her cursor or got up from her desk for more than a few seconds, and with three kids at home who needed help doing remote classes during school lockdowns, that little “away” signal was driving her nuts.
“Working remotely, your colleagues can't physically ‘see’ when you get up to go to the bathroom or grab lunch. Or even take 30 minutes to reset on the couch,” Leah told me. “The last thing I wanted during those moments was to be paranoid that people thought I wasn't working—especially since I felt like I was working more than ever.”
At the beginning of the pandemic almost two years ago, there was much speculation about how the global crisis of COVID-19 would bring a newfound appreciation for how short life is, and how no one really wants to spend it chained to a desk. Out of that, we got the “Great Resignation” with people leaving their jobs in record numbers, and a new word for micromanagers of remote workers: Bossware.
Bossware is spyware from your boss. Some companies make employees use keyboard or mouse-tracking software to ensure that they’re working every moment they’re on the clock, even if they’re at home. Even if managers aren’t spying on your mouse, chat apps quickly turn users' activity bubbles to “away” when they’re inactive for a short time, like in Leah’s case. The Electronic Frontier Foundation denounced bossware as being invasive, unnecessary and unethical, and the Center for Democracy and Technology called it out as being actively detrimental to employees’ health, demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration update its policies on worker safety to include at-home workers.
Company computer surveillance has been a problem since long before 2020, however; Lorenzo, a founder of a mouse mover device company, told Slate that he tried tricking Microsoft Lync (a chat platform, now called Teams) with a DIY moving platform made of plastic and wood way back in 2017, because his boss would message him whenever he briefly got up for a drink of water.
Recently, more remote workers have been hacking together DIY mouse movers, like this one made of LEGO pieces or as brutal as a brick on a spacebar, as their own recent revolts against bossware. But online retailers like Amazon are also full of plug-and-play mouse movers, with options that physically rotate the mouse’s cursor from below, or USB sticks that come preloaded with software that mimics mouse movements. Plugging in the stick tricks the computer into thinking it’s an active mouse.
“The issue of rewarding ‘presence vs productivity’ has always been around, but the forced virtualization of the workplace with the pandemic has made it worse”
There are dozens of results for both kinds on Amazon alone, with thousands of reviews detailing how mouse movers (also called “jigglers”) helped them dodge worker surveillance software. Attention and activity tracking software has been a thing for years, for remote workers as well as in-office employees, students, and proctoring systems. But the pandemic created a boom of these little gadgets.
Leah’s mouse mover is the rotating kind, from a company called Tech8USA. Diana Rodriguez, a spokesperson from Tech8USA told me that the company launched its mouse mover in February 2020, right before the pandemic lockdowns began in the US; sales were modest at first, but two months into the pandemic, they started seeing double-digit growth. Even as people return to offices, sales aren’t slowing down.
Rodriguez told me that their customers are from a wide variety of industries—teachers, lawyers, accountants, students, and more. Most of them are buying mouse movers for one of two reasons: to keep screens from falling asleep when they’re reading documents or monitoring network systems, and to get around archaic workplace policies about productivity as directly relational to how active your keyboard and mouse are.
“The issue of rewarding ‘presence vs productivity’ has always been around, but the forced virtualization of the workplace with the pandemic has made it worse,” Rodriguez said.
Searches for “mouse mover” and “mouse jiggler” both spiked in March 2020, as many desk workers transitioned from offices to their homes at the start of the pandemic, and stayed consistently higher compared to the last five years in 2020 and 2021. You don’t even need to buy a gadget, in some cases, to fake a moving mouse: free downloads of mouse-mimicking software abound online, although if you’re working for a company that is watching your cursor so closely that you need one of these things, you probably don’t have administrative privileges to install new software to your work computer.
On YouTube, mouse mover videos have hundreds of thousands of views. These videos are intended to play on a phone screen, with a mouse resting on top. The movement of the lines in the video should make optical mouse cursors move.
“Since we started working from home, my company rides everyone's ass if your status goes to 'offline' in the Teams chat,” someone in the Reddit community r/antiwork wrote about the mouse mover software they use. “My boss will literally call you out on an email with the whole sales team CC'd, or call your cell and ask why you're not at your desk. I got tired of it and I found an app that moves your mouse so Teams/Skype/whatever IM shows as active and doesn't time out... Don't let the bastards grind you down.” Someone else commented that they’ve gotten similar effects by placing an optical mouse on top of an analog wrist watch. Some of the mouse movers sold on Amazon are basically just this, with a bigger plastic case around the ticking watch.
“The pandemic has proved to be a catalyst to saying no to the ‘9-to-5’ schedule. The tables have turned in favor of the Worker,” Rodriguez told me. “They are in power today. They value work flexibility. They are ambitious. They value work-life balance and are not afraid of saying no to employers who don’t share those values. The Mouse Mover is a new tool in that shift—and we stand with the Knowledge Worker.”