Employee surveillance – monitoring the activities of staff – is by no means a new concept. Long before remote work was widespread, an estimated 80% of large companies were already monitoring how employees used the internet, phone, and email during work hours.
If it was common before, employee monitoring has positively exploded in recent years. A quick Google search returns a handful of ads for remote surveillance software promising to improve productivity, alert leaders when staff is away from their desk for too long, and visualize their team’s performance in easy-to-use dashboards.
Whatever your personal beliefs about remote surveillance, one thing is clear: professional attitudes and practices vary widely depending on the industry, company size, and leaders. In finance and health care, for instance, many argue that employee monitoring is not only useful, but essential for privacy and security, as staff regularly handles sensitive information. Others say that employee monitoring is invasive, belittling, and provides an inaccurate picture of a person’s true “productivity.”
Regardless of opinion, employee monitoring is here to stay. As a remote staffing agency, we know that monitoring employees is inevitable; in many cases, it’s sort of the “cost of doing business.” But for clients and contractors alike, surveillance has raised a lot of questions.
In this article, I’m hoping to shed some light based on our research and experience for both sides, including:
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The Spectrum of Employee Surveillance Software
Employee monitoring refers loosely to digital tools used to track employee work progress, output, and performance. Comprising both hardware and software tools, they’re used to measure productivity, assess behavior, track attendance, and improve organizational security.
As one might expect, there’s a range of options available. Some are relatively innocuous, such as a time-tracker in which an employee enters in hours worked on a given assignment using an honor system. Tracking internet and app usage is also relatively common, and some tools provide leaders with a dashboard breaking down the sites where staff is spending the most time. Some employers choose to filter or block certain URLs or websites completely, either proactively or in response to employee behavior.
But there are a number of tools and options that are, as detractors say, invasive. Screen capture technology has risen in popularity in recent years, allowing managers to view screenshots of their teams’ screens while working to ensure they’re focusing on the right priorities. Some employers even use their team members’ webcams to monitor them or take screenshots at random intervals to ensure they’re at their desk.
While the list of tools is long, we’ve summarized some of the most well-known ones below.
While uncommon, some companies will use bio-data: Amazon famously gave warehouse staff badges that would buzz when they reached for the wrong item.
Why Monitor Your Remote Employees?
Many leaders believe that remote surveillance will benefit their company, and this belief only grew during the pandemic: between 2020 and 2022, the number of large companies using monitoring tools rose to 60 percent. This number is expected to rise to 70 percent by 2025. Given current market conditions, it’s not difficult to see why. A justified fear of economic downturn, mass layoffs in tech, and falling revenues are all putting pressure on leaders to monitor their team’s productivity.
The most commonly perceived benefits of using monitoring software include:
When implemented correctly and with transparency, remote monitoring can uncover areas that need to be addressed. In this section, I’ll cover a few items that can be uncovered using remote monitoring and truly support increased productivity.
Identifying Low Work Performers
We sometimes hear that companies want employees back in the office to keep an eye on low performers. But the reality is that if people are going to slack off, they’ll do it as easily in the office as they will at home.
Whether you’re in the office or not, it can be hard to monitor the effectiveness of employees. If everyone is in cubicles or their own offices, or spread across multiple floors, how do you know when people are being effective?
Identifying low work performers is often simpler than you think. Having them track their time on certain tasks and provide activity logs can give you a good sense of how long it takes them to complete routine projects, and reviewing the end code or product can give you a sense of how completely the task was done. You can also monitor their work in real time: if you can see someone interact with a customer, or approach a task, you can get a good sense of their problem-solving skills, how long it takes to resolve an issue, and whether they’re off task.
Once you’ve identified if someone’s performance is below what you might expect for their level, you can begin to address it:
Why Shouldn’t You Monitor Your Remote Workers?
While employee monitoring can provide substantial benefits, the rationale for approaching it with caution is just as strong. And if you aren’t currently monitoring employee performance but want to start, you’ll want to think carefully about how you do it. Nearly three-quarters of employees surveyed say they’re concerned remote monitoring tools would lead to an invasion of personal privacy, and 71% said they thought it would negatively impact trust.
1. It can erode trust, the foundation of a healthy work culture
As we’ve discussed in other articles, one of the hardest parts of remote work is feelings of loneliness. And the erosion of human connection in the workplace is felt most strongly in one relationship: that between employees and employers.
A study from ExpressVPN found that one in three employees don’t believe their employers are actively monitoring their online activities, when fully 78% of them are. While the use case for this surveillance varies, the rationale includes everything from informing performance reviews to employee termination. And employees are stressed about surveillance: a third of workers are already working longer hours due to surveillance, and half are willing to take a pay cut if it means they’re not being watched.
But trust is integral to employee performance. And so, contradictingly, implementing surveillance – and reducing the sense of perceived trust – can cause employees to feel more stressed, take more sick days and report being less engaged. Worse still, rates of burnout skyrocket in low-trust environments, as much as 40%. This is becoming only more true with younger generations, with 55% of millennials ranking trust as the #1 most important factor in the workplace.
It’s true in intimate relationships as much as it is professional ones: good relationships can’t exist where the foundation is one of distrust. If we signal to our employees that we don’t trust them, we might inhibit the development of a safe, productive work environment. And our culture will suffer.
2. Increased employee burnout, turnover, and hiring costs
As mentioned, surveillance – even the perception of surveillance – can increase stress levels and decrease job satisfaction. Going back to ExpressVPN’s study of more than 2,000 employers and employees, respectively, staff that were monitored felt more pressure to be online, work longer hours, and take fewer breaks.
For many of us, this leads to burnout, a sense of dehumanization, that we’re just a “cog in the wheel.” When employees feel doubted or unsafe, they’re more likely to quit. Half of employees would quit if their boss implemented employee surveillance measures. Without trust, employees are more likely to focus on self-preservation, and may begin job-hunting while still working for you.
And this all nets to higher costs for you. Talent acquisition and new employee training are getting more and more costly, with the highest-ever skills gap in the U.S. right now. It’s estimated that, for every one software developer, there are four open positions. Some estimates put talent acquisition and employee turnover at between 150% and 200% of an employee’s salary.
3. Surveillance Can Give Employers a False Sense of Security
If you still feel like surveillance will increase transparency and shine a light on deficiencies, a word of caution: it can actually be misleading. Not all work is trackable, and sometimes, the highest-impact work is not.
A feature in the New York Times shared the story of a finance executive, whose best work – doing math problems on paper, reading printouts, and thinking – was all done offline, and subsequently not tracked. A Twitter thread on surveillance that went viral included snippets of how developers’ work was influenced by the introduction of surveillance, with one developer admitting to doing “BS commits to up the stats and write code that doesn’t do much.”
Evidently, surveillance might measure (and actually encourage) work that doesn’t move the needle.
4. Employee Monitoring Can Actually Lead to Worse Performance
Surveillance can provide a false sense of security for employers, but the overall impact can actually be more nuanced. Ironically, for some organizations, using surveillance in an attempt to increase productivity can actually reduce it.
Employees may be less forthcoming about their projects and work. Some may fight back, simply on principle: purchasing tools to simulate fake mouse movements, or using private browsing windows for personal use while keeping work projects open in the company-monitored one.
A study by Harvard Business Review found that employees were more likely to slack off, slow down, and steal than non-monitored employees. There’s also a solid amount of evidence to show that people who are monitored are more likely to make mistakes, with scientists theorizing this is because people experience an increase in anxiety.
If You’re Going to Monitor Your Remote Developers, Here’s How
Clearly, there are significant privacy and culture implications for remote monitoring. But sometimes, you have to do it. If you do have to implement it (or you have already, but you want to improve your policies around it), it’s important to have a clear plan and fair practices in place before implementing. Below is some advice based on what we’ve heard from clients and freelancers.
Micro vs Macro Monitoring
Rather than monitoring your employees on an active, minute-by-minute basis, we think it’s more important and less problematic to measure employee performance on a macro level. This means keeping track of metrics and KPIs like tasks accomplished per month, for instance, rather than micro-level indicators like screenshots or keylogging. In our experience, these measures are much more relevant to business success, and feel less invasive.
Be Thoughtful About What You Choose to Monitor
Think critically about what you’re monitoring and what you’ll actually learn from it. Importantly, beware of “vanity metrics” – indicators that might look good, but don’t actually measure activities that push the business forward. For instance, is it truly useful for you to measure keystroke per minute for a QA Engineer? Is measuring the number of commits a dev does going to give you a good sense of the quality of their code?
What you’re measuring should be relevant and necessary. If you’re using Scrum, you could measure agile story points per hour to learn about their coding velocity. Or if you adhere to Kanban, you could measure lead time, which will show you how fast a developer can deliver a certain task. Outside of methodologies, pull request size and test coverage are two metrics that can provide useful indicators of your developers’ productivity.
Of course, these should – and will – vary between departments and teams. Fewer metrics are likely more: try not to convolute it too much with fancy formulas. Usually, simpler is better.
Be Transparent With Candidates Upfront and Employees on an Ongoing Basis
If you’re currently monitoring employees, or plan to, transparency is key. Let candidates know early that there will be monitoring, and what that looks like. Do you have them log their hours using time-tracking software and provide daily activity logs? Will you be monitoring their active hours on a company device?
Whatever you do, let them know why you conduct monitoring and why it’s important. At the end of the day, trust is about transparency. If you’re honest and upfront with your team about why you have to do it – say you’re facing pressure from your board – they’ll be more likely to support the initiative.
Lastly, be sure to give employees a process that’s easy and feels safe to question any metrics they disagree with. This will make your employees feel heard and seen, and encourage dialogue about this practice.
Don’t Rely on Tracking Tools Alone
If it’s not already clear, we’re true believers that numbers don’t tell the whole story. Think about your day: is the highest-value activity you did today something that can be tracked with a screen capture or keylogging? Perhaps not.
It’s important to use your judgment and think critically about metrics to paint a full story. If an employee was inactive on their computer for half the day, is it possible they had a number of sales calls? Might they have been brainstorming? And if they’re a team leader or senior engineer, were they possibly in offline meetings all day?
Along with specific metrics, also use your judgment about nuance. Even good employees have bad days. Use your judgment and empathy when reviewing the metrics you see. If a high performer suddenly has a day of inactivity and low output, think about why that might be before providing recourse. Allow for variability from week to week: every person has “off days”. Some weeks we’re more productive than others. And if you aren’t sure about some numbers you see, reach out to the employee – again, it all comes back to trust.
Alternatives to Remote Monitoring
If you want a better sense of how your staff is performing but are reticent to employ surveillance tools, there are a few alternatives that operate on a more analogue, honor model that often work well.
Time-tracking tools have been in use for a long time. They can include tools that allow for clocking in and out alone, or be more nuanced. Some tools, like Clockify, allow you to create and assign clients, projects, and specific tasks, then print out a weekly report of your hours.
Time tracking tools offer a number of benefits. For example:
There are a number of free and paid tools, a number of which are outlined on this list.
Goal-oriented models give your developers goals and timelines by which they should complete projects. These also typically operate on more of an honor system, but provide a number of benefits.
Aligning developers around goals and timelines can provide focus for your team, making it clear what the top priorities are. It can also give a solid sense of when things are off-track. But more than that, there are some subconscious benefits, too: goal orientation “gamifies” work, encourages motivation and keeps your teams excited. They want to meet that deadline. Together, this also helps build trust and collaboration with your team, with everyone working toward a shared goal. Ultimately, these models can help reduce turnover and increase productivity.
Remote monitoring is becoming more and more common. And not all tracking is bad. Businesses need to know who is performing well and who isn’t. KPIs and metrics are a healthy thing for companies and are not going away. Remote monitoring – when implemented correctly – can uncover useful truths about your organization. It can help you support your workers and shift focus onto more important projects.
Whether you’ve implemented it or not, being thoughtful about the approach and implementation is key. The implications of micro-monitoring are negative, risking the erosion of trust in the workplace, increasing feelings of anxiety, burnout, and even turnover.
So, be upfront about it. People want to know how they will be evaluated. Let them know what it will look like, right away. “Macro” tracking feels OK. For example, how much did you accomplish this month, whatever it is that your job entails. “Micro” tracking is what starts to feel invasive. Screen captures, mouse activity, and keyboard activity all will affect morale and will likely be counterproductive if you’re dealing with knowledge workers. These should only be used to spot “red flags” and be used only as part of a broader picture. Too much micro-tracking might lead you may lose talented people who don’t want to feel like Big Brother is looking over their shoulder all day.