We need to talk about employee monitoring software
April 29, 2020
The rise in flexible and remote working is driving managers to seek new ways to keep track of their teams. For some, it’s about keeping work visible and balancing resources; for others, it’s about measuring productivity, monitoring overtime and gauging performance.
But when seeking software solutions to these problems, managers inevitably run into the dark world of employee monitoring. It’s made up of invasive surveillance systems that use dystopian methods to monitor all kinds of employee activity. Built on suspicion and distrust, many are even designed so employees can’t trace them.
There certainly is an ethical way to obtain relevant employee data, but it requires managers to go beyond good intentions and choose software that benefits, protects and hands control to employees. Here’s what to watch out for in your research.
Totalitarian employee monitoring software
First, a hard truth: the majority of employee monitoring software is unethical. That is, tools use draconian methods to obtain employee data and the kinds of data they capture go well beyond an innocent interest in performance oversight. Here are a few tell-tale signs of totalitarian employee monitoring systems.
A lot of employee monitoring software immediately betray their inbuilt prejudice against employees from the language used on their websites. They pedal the classic “selfish, lazy worker” trope, using a guilty-until-proven innocent approach to justify the use of spyware. Many adopt the “company security” angle to justify an astounding invasion of employee privacy. It’s capitalism at its most paranoid, a law unto itself.
Here are a handful of examples – taken from the first Google results page for “employee monitoring software” – to illustrate:
“…grants you the transparency to ensure your workers are trustworthy and productive.”
“Record and comprehensively track all of your employees' digital activity... so you’ll know if they're working hard or hardly working.”
“coffee breaks or smoke breaks, going out for a walk in the middle of the working day, and other distractions from work duties are automatically recorded.”
Using employee data responsibly starts with only collecting what is pertinent in the first place. But many employee monitoring tools go well beyond legitimate, reasonable interests to capture an absurd level of employee activity. This can include:
Monitoring all employee internet activity
Parsing email messages, chats and instant messages
Tracking keystrokes and mouse movements
Logging clipboard activities, printing, online searches and downloads
Taking regular screenshots or recording screen activity
Offering employers remote control of employee devices
Accessing a computer’s webcam remotely to view surroundings
Geo-tagging to see where employees are working
Absence of transparency
While employers in Europe are required to tell employees if they are being monitored, in the US there is no such requirement. In fact, only three states have passed bills allowing employees to deny their employers access to their personal Facebook pages. As such, many employee monitoring tools are purposely designed to be incognito, often hidden from “Running Processes” so employees don’t know they’re being watched.
Can employee monitoring software be ethical?
Monitoring of any kind understandably makes people uneasy, but in a workplace context it can spark employee anxiety and stress, crush creativity, lower job satisfaction, and ultimately kill company culture.
When we feel our privacy isn’t respected and we aren’t trusted to do our job, we naturally lose faith in our employer. In stark contrast, when we feel trusted, we produce higher-quality work, experience less stress and enjoy our work more.
However, there is a way to balance employee oversight with trust. Employee monitoring can be ethical when it satisfies these three main points:
It leads with transparency – workers know what data is captured and how it will be used.
It protects employee agency – employees maintain full control over their own privacy, ensuring only relevant data is shared with their employers and colleagues.
Keep teams visible without destroying trust
Here at Memory, we know not all managers have bad intentions; some legitimately want to use employee monitoring for empowering, practical reasons.
As a remote team ourself, we know first-hand how difficult it can be to unify a group of people across the globe – ensuring all work stays visible, making sure billable hours are accurately represented, and allocating resources to where they’re most needed. On a more human level, we know it's ridiculously hard to support someone you never see in person – making sure they have a manageable workload and aren’t headed for burnout.
But we also know trust is central to every team. It’s why we’ve built a time tracking tool that helps keep teams visible without undermining their privacy and professional dignity. Crucially, it actually serves the interests of employees and operates using a model of active employee consent. In a nutshell, here’s how Timely works:
Only relevant data is captured – Timely only records time spent in desktop and web activity, which allows employees to report on their work and hours; it doesn’t record the content of those apps or take any creepy screenshots.
Data stays private to employees – Timely records an employee’s data to a private timeline only they can access; no manager or colleague can pry into their activity.
Employees control what data is shared – Timely lets employees choose what information is publically shared with their teams, ensuring personal or irrelevant data stays private.
While we do still get the odd disappointing feature request to track employee screens, the majority of our users get it:
“Employee privacy appears at the heart of Timely and is the confidence employees need. They are the one we're trying to empower here, after all.” – Alex
"I was looking for a tool to help me better organize my work. But with Timely, I soon discovered I could better organize my team too! It helps me identify where we are effective (and profitable), and where we need to improve our workflows. I work better with Timely, and I have a better understanding of my employees' time without making them feeling controlled." – Piotr
“A secure, safe, flexible, intelligent and powerful time tracker system.” – Wael
“I used to feel guilty all the time for not getting everything on my to-do list done. With Timely, I now see that I didn't have realistic time goals for projects. This is going to completely revolutionize the way I focus my days.” – Meagan