Three years ago this month, offices around the country (and the world) had emptied out, and workers were learning about a new video chat tool called Zoom. I was one of those people. Between wiping down my groceries after returning from the store (remember that?), obsessing about the latest COVID-19 numbers, and trying to cobble together a suitable workspace in my modest Brooklyn apartment, I was adjusting to a new way of working. It wasn’t easy. I’d never had a work-from-home job and had always kept work and home separate, using my 40-minute-plus commute on the subway as a transitioning period. But now, forced to make it work during a global health crisis where no one was certain when and if we’d return to our office, these two separate lives would have to merge. Sure, it felt like a huge luxury to sleep in a little in the morning during the time it would have taken to get to work at first. But in the words of a friend of mine, “The worst part of working from home is the working part.”
Working from home can be difficult for some. For employees, distractions can be endless. For managers, it creates unknowns and leads to worry that their employees are not putting in the time at home or are even working two jobs. So many companies began looking into tracking and surveillance software to determine exactly what their workers were up to while working remotely. Tracking software wasn’t new for some companies; many have already used it in office settings. But remote work pushed a lot of large corporations worried about a potential loss of productivity into seeking out software solutions.
In April 2020, weeks after major shutdowns began across the country to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, the demand for employee monitoring software worldwide more than doubled, according to the Harvard Business Review. Monitoring software was so popular that 95 percent of HR executives said they had implemented new methods of tracking and reporting the productivity of remote workers or were planning to do so in the future, according to a PwC study from 2022.
Companies like Amazon and UPS have already used monitoring software to track the productivity of employees with lower-paid jobs. However, the rise in remote work since the pandemic has led companies across various industries to adopt new ways of monitoring workers. A New York Times study from last year found that eight of the ten largest private employers in the country use some kind of monitoring tool to track the productivity metrics of their workers. Banking giants like J.P. Morgan and Barclays Bank have used productivity monitoring with employees, UnitedHealth Group’s keyboard activity tracking could affect bonuses, and even the real estate analytics company CoStar used monitoring tools to keep tabs on how its workers spent their time.
The tools run the gamut on what they can do. Some monitor keystrokes, while others can tell when a worker is idle for periods of time. Some surveillance tools use video and still images to take periodic snapshots of workers during the course of working hours. Others use webcams to monitor how attentive workers are by using biometric data like eye movement, facial expressions, and even body shifts. Common tools track individual employees’ web usage, including web browsing history and apps used, and even email and social media monitoring are becoming standard. Popular workplace messaging tools like Slack, Microsoft Team, and even Zoom aren’t immune to tracking devices either.
The software companies offering these products to companies primarily bill them as productivity trackers, a way to gain valuable insights into how employees work so they can make needed changes that could lead to a better-functioning workplace and happier employees. For many business leaders, the shift to hybrid work schedules has caused a lot of insecurity over the productivity of their employees. In a wide-ranging study by Microsoft last fall, 85 percent of leaders surveyed said that the shift to hybrid work has “made it challenging to have confidence” that employees are being productive. But in the same survey, researchers also found that 87 percent of employees reported being productive at work. The figures point to what Microsoft deemed “productivity paranoia.”
Even after companies returned to in-person work, many have continued using productivity tracking software. One of the most popular software tracking products offered on the market is ActivTrak, an Austin, Texas-based firm founded in 2009. ActivTrak has more than 9,000 customers, and more than 550,000 people use the company’s software, according to the firm’s website. CEO Mark Ralls told me there was a definite increase in interest for his company’s product through the pandemic and after. “The reality is, just because someone is in an office doesn’t mean you have a great understanding of how they get work done or where they may need support,” Ralls said.
Much of the data that workplace productivity software collects can ultimately help workers. Insights gleaned by ActivTrak have been helpful to companies looking to nail down workplace policies or resource allocation. In one example, Ralls described a client that used ActivTrak’s capacity planning data to spot an overworked team. Shifting work assignments to other teams who had less work helped prevent future burnout and attrition. “For some, using ActivTrak enabled them to decide not to return–saving on real estate costs, etc.,” said Ralls. “For others, it’s given them the confidence to offer in-office and remote flexibility because they have visibility into when and how their productivity fluctuates.”
Even with the benefits that workplace tracking and surveillance software can create for workers, they tend to be negatively perceived. Unsurprisingly, people don’t love the thought of being watched. And although monitoring isn’t new, adding it to the stress from the pandemic and a job market that favors workers can end up tanking employee morale. Recent studies from the European Commission’s Joint Research Council and Gartner found that monitoring can cause a lot of negative impacts on workers, including decreased job satisfaction, increased stress, more turnover, burnout, and more difficulty with work-life balance. And there have been a lot of concerns over whether monitoring methods can be too invasive and how they can erode trust between employers and employees.
In 2019, workers at Google were upset over monitoring tools implemented by the company in a move that claimed to be intended to suppress internal dissent and went public with their allegations. All companies want to avoid backlash and maintain trust with employees, and there are steps companies can take to do that. Experts recommend being transparent about any monitoring going on–some states, like New York, even require it–and thinking about the real reason behind using monitoring technology. “If your goal only is to find slackers and punish them, it likely will create problems in terms of employee motivation and retention,” said David Brodeur-Johnson, principal analyst and employee experience research lead for Forrester.
For his part, ActivTrak’s Ralls said his firm had taken a lot of steps to ensure their software protects employee privacy. The firm’s software does not include surveillance features like webcam images or keystroke logging and gives clients the flexibility to aggregate and anonymize data. They also recommend to clients that they be transparent about their data collection efforts. “Like most things, when employees are both aware and consulted on the solution, their buy-in is greater,” Ralls said. The software company has seen the most acceptance at companies where leaders and managers use the data collected to better their employees’ working lives. “After all, the goal here is to improve productivity,” he said.
Workplace surveillance is something that, like remote and hybrid work, is likely here to stay. Technology will continue to advance, and anything promising to improve things and optimize the workplace will surely get a lot of attention and users. But it’s a scary time for some, with concerns over data privacy, fears, and uncertainty over how advanced tech like AI and machine learning impacts people’s jobs and makes many people uneasy. It really comes down to what’s best for your company and workplace. There has undoubtedly been a lot of backlash to surveillance and tracking methods, but it has also been welcomed or met with indifference by others. Finding the right balance between security and gaining meaningful insights into how to help the company function better is vital. And that’s the message that should be transparent and well-communicated to workers.