It’s a decision that may seem like a no-brainer. You got a new job and they just gave you a brand new ThinkPad. Perfectyou think to yourself. It’s time for me to get out of there 10 year old MacBook Air.
I have been there. Surveys have shown that more than half of employees use work-related devices for personal tasks – whether it’s sending personal messages, shopping online, accessing social media or reading the news. The prospect of using your work laptop as your only laptop — not just for work, but for Netflixing, group chatting, reading fanfiction, paying bills, and emailing recipes to your mom — is understandably tempting, especially for people who work from home. Keeping work and personal tasks in one place may seem like an easy way to simplify your life, and it can save space on your desk. Above all, it may seem like a good cost-saving measure.
But I’m here to deliver bad news: don’t do that. Please, I beg you, don’t do that.
The most important thing to remember is that if you’re using a work laptop, you should assume that IT can see what you’re doing. Companies have all kinds of tools available to monitor their employees’ devices – keyloggers, biometric tracking, geolocation, software that tracks web browsing and social media behavior. More than half use some kind of surveillance technique, and its use has become more popular during the COVID-19 pandemic.
And of course, your company can see what you’re doing in business programs like Slack and G-Suite Enterprise. Your novel you wrote overnight? Your Slack posts complaining to your coworkers about your boss? IT can see all that. Even if you have separate personal accounts for these services, you’re more likely to get them mixed up if you’re both signed in to the same computer.
“When you’re on a work laptop, you have to assume that your IT can see everything,” says Ryan Toohil, who has worked in IT for 20 years and is currently CTO of Aura, a digital security company. “It’s the company’s laptop. They own it. It’s enrolled in a business IT product that allows them to track where you are on the web.” Toohil stressed that not all IT departments regularly go through their employees’ web histories, but there is always a risk that they can.
It’s not just your activity that your colleagues can see, they can also access everything you download. Loading some personal photos or text messages onto your work device to keep them may seem harmless – you just wipe them before turning them in, right? But some companies (like Apple) don’t allow you to wipe your device before you hand it in, no matter how personal the content is. Even if your employer does not have such a policy, there is a possibility that you will be fired or fired in the short term, or your company may collapse without warning.
In these cases you are can have time to delete personal files from your laptop before turning it in, but depending on the circumstances of your termination, you could be locked out before you have the chance. “In most companies, the moment you are fired, there is usually an automated process that disables your access,” Toohil says.
Even if you leave your company well in advance, moving a lot of things off your work device in the last few days of your tenure can raise some eyebrows at IT — which, remember, can see everything you do on that device. “Suppose you start working for a competitor,” says Toohil. “They’re going to go through that huge audit trail, look, wow, you pulled a lot of data off this laptop in the week before you left. And that opens up a huge liability for you personally. You’re going to spend at least some time explaining what you were doing. In the worst case scenario, you took some company information with you.”
And when things go wrong, the list of embarrassing possibilities is endless: do you really want to be? this woman, who received a text about pooping on her computer while sharing her screen with executives? Or this employee, who accidentally posted fetish porn in a company-wide group chat? Or this man, who invited his current boss to his job interview on Zoom? When you combine work and pleasure on one device, just one wrong email attachment or one wrong copy/paste can lead to scenarios that are not only embarrassing, but can damage your relationships with colleagues and even jeopardize your job.
I know that using your work laptop as a personal laptop seems like a pretty cost-effective measure, especially if you’re using one of the 51 percent of US workers who work from home at least part of the time. But here’s the good news: a personal laptop doesn’t have to cost much, especially if you just want to use it for some emailing, Netflixing, and tweeting. Some of the best laptops you can buy are regularly available for under $1,000 — and if you’re open to Chrome OS, some of the best Chromebooks are under $400. I’ve tested all of these devices myself, including the Lenovo Chromebook. Duet at $299 and the Asus Chromebook Detachable at $389.99, and I’d have no problem using both as my primary personal device. Even a $329.99 iPad can handle most laptop stuff, especially if you buy a keyboard case. Budget laptops have come a long way and these devices are fast and very well made.
Otherwise, what you’re looking for in a personal laptop comes down to your price range and the features you want. In fact, that’s a great advantage of a personal device: you can tailor the product to your needs and preferences in ways that an IT department might not be able to handle. You can look at specs like the processor (an Intel Core i5 or AMD Ryzen 5 should be the most you need for web browsing and Netflix), screen resolution (go for 1080p unless you’re very picky), storage, memory and weight (you can get affordable laptops as light as two pounds) – and you can find the combination that fits your lifestyle.
Plus, you can get benefits from personal laptops that you probably won’t see in a typical office notebook. Fancy trying out some games? Buy something with a GPU. Are you an artist? Grab something with a stylus. Do you want a tablet to keep your piano music on? Buy something with a detachable screen. Like beautiful lamps? Buy something with an RGB keyboard. You can cover the product with all the skins, stickers and embellishments you want, and you can even get something that looks totally ridiculous if that’s your whim. It’s your laptop – you’re the boss!
I’ll end on a personal note: many remote employees have trouble logging out. A majority feels that their personal and professional lives are more intermingled than with office access. Now that my work and my free time take place in the same room, with no commuting between them, it’s harder to ignore the nagging idea that I should be working — that even if I’m not on time, I could do more.
Speaking from experience, a personal laptop can help with that. I’m less tempted to check my work email when I’m not logged into it on my computer. And there’s a little sense of freedom in knowing that Slack notifications don’t show up while I’m watching succession because Slack is not installed on my succession– watch device. A personal laptop is an investment – not only in your safety, but also in your sanity. You should take one get one.
Photography by Monica Chin / The Verge