There has been much news recently about “tattleware”—software to enable the practice of monitoring employees to catch them off track or engaging in other activities while on the clock. Employees are being tracked unknowingly at work, including with keystroke monitoring, screenshot grabbing and even the recording of personal conversations in a remote worker's home. This surveillance method of secretly monitoring an employee's activity—while deemed necessary by some institutions that require a high level of data security—understandably has some people unsettled and is likely to cause distrust and reduce productivity.
There’s no doubt that rapid technological change, mass layoffs, general uneasiness about the economy and other macro factors have put extra burden and stress on workers. At the same time—and particularly in this new era of remote and hybrid work—employers are challenged to balance the need for visibility into employee work activities with a level of trust that also allows for some flexibility.
A wise employer will use visibility tools not for nitpicking via surveillance, but to create insights that help employees boost productivity, increase time spent on revenue-driving work and identify both distractions as well as repetitive, time-sucking tasks. Yet many employee monitoring solutions remain secretive, putting companies in precarious legal situations, putting employees unknowingly at risk and violating personal privacy. A study from ExpressVPN revealed some startling facts about the extent to which workers are being surveilled by employers, and about the stress this causes to employees, leaving them feeling invaded rather than empowered. This post will examine the evolution of workforce monitoring, some of the dominant factors in adoption and acceptance of monitoring technologies and how one company, ActivTrak, approaches the industry differently.
The evolution of monitoring from Amazon warehouses to the white-collar world
Employee monitoring has been around for many years in the form of timecards, video surveillance, GPS tracking and so on. Most notoriously, Amazon monitored and measured every single pause a warehouse worker took. Indeed, a highly precise “time off track” system made Amazon very efficient. Still, that system has been characterized as invasive and was rumored to result in workers' termination without any human involvement or room for explanation. The company also came under scrutiny for its Netradyne Driveri fleet monitoring technology, which recorded the actions of Amazon drivers (some of whom are third-party contractors, not Amazon employees) on the road, including everything from speeding to simply yawning. Many workers found the monitoring activities intrusive, resulting in union protests.
Amazon claims that all its termination decisions involve managers, and it has defended its fleet monitoring as an investment in safety. It is fair to see the picture from both sides: there is no doubt that Amazon was investing in safety and productivity, yet the message to employees was also understandably often seen as distrusting and meddlesome. Now types of monitoring that have been common for warehouses and logistics companies have moved into industries where some never anticipated they would go. In particular, employee monitoring has moved up the income ladder, and according to ExpressVPN, roughly three-fourths of companies now use it.
Not all monitoring is created equal
Spying on employees via keystrokes and time logged online to ensure they put in their required hours is counterproductive. For one thing, it captures only limited data, such that time spent thinking, reading a pertinent article, talking to a colleague by phone or taking notes by hand are not captured. Worse than that, in many cases the data is being used as part of a “gotcha” methodology rather than being used to analyze and improve productivity and employee well-being.
Trust and honesty must be a two-way street, and trust can be built only by honestly and consistently demonstrating a set of values through one's actions. In the context of surveillance tools, this means that employers must be transparent about the presence of tracking tools and about how the data collected by those tools will be used. More than that, leaders must communicate their expectations clearly and provide the necessary support mechanisms to enable productivity in a flexible work environment.
Effective organizations will establish transparency agreements for hybrid work that specify the data collected and how it will be used, shared and accessed. Far from being a burden, this creates an avenue for companies to use resources better, manage people’s time, save money, boost productivity and even detect and remediate burnout. A transparent system that is designed and implemented with trust can foster collaboration among leaders, managers and employees to identify opportunities for improvement and act on them together.
Data collection and analysis enable a quantitative approach to employment
Enter ActivTrak, whose workforce analytics and productivity platform aims to use organizational data to work backward from milestones and pinpoint which insights are essential for achieving them. When those insights are identified, measured, analyzed and appropriately used, teams can identify actions and behaviors that affect company performance positively or negatively. More importantly, they can help an organization create a mission-centric, supportive culture of continual feedback and improvement with buy-in from all sides. From executive leadership to managers to individual contributors, each stakeholder can gain valuable knowledge of their working conditions and habits in a way that can surprise even the highest achievers.
From a leadership perspective, ActivTrak's team insights can improve strategic alignment by helping leaders understand the time and resources committed to specific projects and tasks. The system provides visibility into cross-functional collaboration and coordination, all while keeping an eye on employee engagement and well-being.
The early versions of employee-monitoring technology were considered intrusive and often did not create a holistic view of an individual contributor. By contrast, platforms such as ActivTrak’s harvest personal insights that take privacy and individual agency into account; more importantly, this type of technology has the potential to help individual workers maintain a more productive schedule, break bad or distracting habits and identify skills gaps and opportunities for coaching and upskilling.
Identifying burnout could be a modern manager's superpower
Technology isn't used merely to solve technical problems. In fact, it’s often much more important when it's used to solve business problems. Unfortunately, even though “people problems” contribute to some of the biggest business challenges, until recent years many companies' business models didn't incorporate employee well-being at all. Yet we now know that problems like employee burnout contribute to billions in lost revenue for companies each year. Worse than that, burnout can make people sick; in 2019, the World Health Organization classified employee burnout as a medical condition.
The good news? There is a better way. By engaging with metrics that identify the risks for burnout, companies can better understand work patterns and pinpoint workload imbalances to support employees as they reinforce healthy habits and collaborate on ways to improve.
Anonymized feedback up the management chain allows for two-way communication to ensure that the health of the organization is prioritized without employees fearing retribution. With trust, data and insights, having the right model for productivity is akin to wearing a fitness tracker—the more you know about the inputs, the more you can control the outcome.
On the right track
ActivTrak calls its product an “analytics and well-being platform,” and I think the company is wise to focus on the well-being part. While I understand the desire for companies to have visibility into their hybrid workforces, the damage done by "tattleware" is significant and counterproductive to the end goal of greater profitability. With configurable settings for who has access to what data and when, classification of critical versus non-critical tasks and customizable settings for privacy and working hours, systems such as ActivTrak’s are not only good for the company, but for employees as well.
If used correctly to enhance performance rather than police behavior, productivity monitoring tools could become resources that tech workers welcome, if not demand. This trend will only increase as the sophistication of products improves and the beneficial outcomes from these tools continue to be demonstrated. For ActivTrak to continue to lead in this space, it will need to stay ahead of legislative changes, navigate ethical dilemmas with customers and continually evolve its offerings to help drive value for the individual worker.
This is a tricky space to work in because it has been marred by bad actors who operate stealthily, which breeds distrust across the entire industry. It could take some time, but I would love to see a version of ActivTrak (or any other monitoring platform) that adapts to a worker's productivity changes. In this scenario, companies could set productivity thresholds; once those thresholds are reached consistently, the monitoring intensity would decrease, depending on the employee's choices. This model would allow for more autonomy and agency depending on the level of productivity—sort of like how I give more leeway to my teenagers so long as they keep showing their trustworthiness. High achievers may very well decide to keep gathering the data so they can continue to level up.
The employee-tracking industry will continue to evolve and face the challenges of transparency, acceptance and regulation. Ultimately, any tool that monitors people must have people’s well-being at the core of its mission. Otherwise, buy-in will be a battle and productivity will suffer, ultimately damaging not only well-being but the bottom line.