“Our teams have been working from home since March and while overall it seems to be working well, I think some employees aren’t really working as they should be. Should I be using monitoring software to track their productivity?”
The QuoStar Answer
Well, this is a relatively common question and one I’m sure many managers have contemplated in the previous six months. Since lockdown, demand for monitoring software has soared. Searches for ‘employee surveillance software’ are up more than 80% and some providers have seen a threefold increase in demand for their tech.
However, employee monitoring is nothing new. In 2019, over 50% of large organisations were already using ‘non-traditional methods’ to monitor their employees, such as analysing email text, logging computer usage or tracking employee movements. Even employees themselves are beginning to expect a certain level of monitoring and believe it will increase in the future.
Advantages and disadvantages of employee monitoring
The benefits of employee monitoring are probably widely known. Many studies have shown that when people know they are being monitored, they behave in the way they think is expected. In other words, they become more productive.
The real–time data collected by tools can, if utilised correctly, help uncover problems and identify bottlenecks. You can allocate resources more effectively and rework processes to prevent employees from having to spend more time than necessary on certain tasks. It will also allow you to identify employee strengths and weakness, giving opportunity for both praise and further training
A welcome side effect, particularly in the current climate, is enhanced data security. As an example, some tools can alert you to suspicious activity or block certain actions from happening altogether, such as the opening of certain applications.
However, all these potential benefits can be instantly wiped out by a poorly handled rollout. Attempts to be covert or any dishonesty about the true purpose of monitoring will likely be viewed extremely negatively. Your employees may feel that their privacy has been devalued or violated, and like the company no longer trusts them. It may result in diminished morale and elevated stress, harming your ability to retain staff in the long run.
Legal implications of monitoring employees at work
While employers are well within their rights to monitor activity on ‘business-owned’ devices, it’s a fine line to tread. You need to find a balance between employees’ legitimate expectation to privacy and the company’s interests, and there must also be a legitimate purpose for the monitoring.
The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) states that employees should be made aware before monitoring begins, told the reasons for its use and how the information collected will be used. Government guidance also states that employers must clearly explain the amount of monitoring in the staff handbook or contract. This includes telling workers if they’re being monitoring, what counts as a reasonable amount of personal emails and phone calls, and if personal emails and calls are not allowed.
You will need to carry out a formal ‘impact assessment’ to justify the use of monitoring tools before any go live. This identifies the purpose of the monitoring and the likely benefits and adverse impact. As part of the assessment, you’ll need to look at alternative ways the purpose might be achieved; look at the obligations that will arise from monitoring; and whether the decision is justifiable (compared to the effects the employee might experience).
If you’re planning to use the information collected as the basis of disciplinary procedures (e.g. an employee being consistently unproductive) then I would also advise seeking legal advice to determine whether you need to amend your employment contracts to reflect this.
Monitoring software raises the age-old issue of data security and privacy as well. The more that is recorded, the more data there is to secure and protect. Just last month, H&M was fined for collecting extensive details about their employees’ private lives, which was accessible to 50 other managers. So, it’s crucial that you understand exactly how your monitoring tool will collect and store information, particularly if this happening on a third-party system. If the data is stored in a different country to where you’re located, you may need to comply with additional regulations.
What technology is available to monitor employees?
If you feel employee monitoring is both necessary and justifiable, then the good news is there are plenty of tools available. I won’t list specific products or providers, but some features you might look out for include:
- Screen Monitoring – Captures real-time screenshots of a computer’s desktop or active window at set intervals, allowing you to see work in progress at any given point.
- User Activity Tracking – Tracks and collects real-time user actions and behaviour data on company networks and connected and monitored devices. Also known as User Behaviour Analytics (UBA), not only can these tools track productivity, they’re important for security as well. This proactive form of monitoring can help you spot suspicious activity and prevent access privileges from being abused. Some tools will also alert when actions you have marked as ‘suspicious’ happens. For example, if an employee tries to download unauthorised software to a work device, the administrator will be notified immediately.
- Internet Monitoring – Automatically monitors employees’ application and web usage during working hours. Reports break down what was accessed and for how long, allowing you to spot if someone’s spending too much time on certain sites. Most tools can also block, deter or limit employees from accessing unproductive sites during working hours. Usually, companies use these tools to block social media, online gaming portals, and entertainment or streaming sites.
- Time Tracking – Records time spent on projects or tasks. These apps are ideal for companies who bill by the hour, allowing for more accurate invoices, but it can also help with resource allocation. Records can help you identify bottlenecks and investigate whether you should amend processes or provide greater support for employees.
- Keylogging – Keyloggers run in the background to track, capture and record all keyboard activity and mouse clicks. They can track activity across a variety of platforms, including email, instant messengers, web browsers and apps. The data collected can provide insight into daily activity, attitude, professionalism and productivity.
- Call Recording – For industries, like recruitment, where communication is necessary for successful outcomes, your telephony system should be able to give you the insights here. Some hosted telephony and VoIP tools offer in-depth metrics including time on the phone, time to answer, who answered which call, and calls made/received/missed.
- Constant Presence Tools – Utilise the webcam to take photos of employees at regular intervals, to check they’re at their desk. With some products, you can see photos all on one screen and click on them to start instant video chat.
- GPS – This may an option if you have employees working at multiple locations or at client sites, as they can allow you to record individual’s hours and locations in one place.
Most software products will offer multiple productivity tracking features, so you don’t necessarily need a purchase a separate product for each one.
Employee monitoring is a very difficult line to tread. It can never be a simple, blanket yes or no. Every business will need to evaluate the pros and cons in line with their specific processes, operations and culture.
Bear in mind, the current situation is an extreme one. It may be overly simplistic to solely blame ‘remote working’ for impacts on productivity. Employees may have legitimate worries or problems in their personal lives as a result of the pandemic. They might be trying to balance childcare with work, caring for sheltering or vulnerable relatives or their mental health might be suffering. You will need to mindful of the wider circumstances when discussing productivity with individuals, as some may need greater support to achieve their usual ‘office-based’ output.
If this is the first-time employees have ever worked remotely, this is not necessarily an accurate representation of how they would perform in ‘usual’ times. Yes, remote working is not for everyone. Some people much prefer to be in the office, surrounded by their colleagues. Some will always see it as an opportunity to shirk their duties, as there’s no one around to check-in. But I wouldn’t necessarily rush to write off remote working as a complete no-go for your entire business.
If you do decide to go the software route, then ensure you’re transparent about it and be aware of how it might affect your company culture, as well as the legal obligations you’ll need to fulfil.
Just remember that X hours in front of the screen does not equal X hours of productive work. Yes, these shiny new tools that take photos of employees at their laptop and track their GPS location, are great but they alone cannot paint a true picture. Arguably, working hours aren’t the most important thing, it’s the output of those hours. You need to identify meaningful KPIs and regularly track these to really assess an employee’s contribution to the business. A slightly extended lunch or an extra short coffee break in the afternoon might not be the end of the world if the work is still being done.
It’s all about balance at the end of the day.
Do you have a question for QuoStar?
Struggling with strategy? Confused by the cloud? In the dark about IT investment? Drop us a message below for the chance to feature in the next QuoStar Q&A*
*All submitted questions are kept completely anonymous if featured in the series.