Employee monitoring tools are on the rise—a trend that began even before the COVID-19 pandemic sparked a rise in remote work. But with more employees signing on from home, investing in tools feels all the more urgent. Today’s companies are looking for different technologies to help them analyze email and social media messages, track phone transcripts and meeting activity, gather biometric data and even follow employees’ physical location or interactions with coworkers.
Traditional methods have been proven ineffective: Larger companies that track employee progress through performance evaluations lose as much as $35 million a year in wasted working hours. Productivity-tracking software is a more automatic solution that helps organizations examine employee work habits and offer real-time feedback. This technology can help companies save money and time—while also increasing the effectiveness of performance reviews.
Despite these potential benefits, productivity-tracking technology is a complex and difficult topic of discussion that tends to make employees feel overly anxious about their day-to-day workflows. However, if employers are transparent about how workplace activities are being monitored and explain how this data collection can deliver benefits, workers are more likely to accept, and even encourage, these practices.
We sat down with a couple of HR industry experts to get a better idea of how companies discuss or use employee monitoring technology:
1. Make the benefits known.
Productivity-tracking technology has obvious appeal for employers, but the benefits may not be immediately clear for employees. For this reason, HR analyst Ben Eubanks stresses the importance of explaining to employees why data collection is beneficial for them, too.
"The benefit has to outweigh the cost," he says. "If it does not, that is when people turn against the system. That’s when people are upset, that’s when people are angry."
For example, employee monitoring can sometimes mean that bosses are monitoring workers’ physical locations, and even how employees are interacting within the company. If your company is observing employees at this level, communication is key:
"Your company needs to be giving employees insights that will help them be better at their job or help the company be better overall," Eubanks adds. "Don’t assume that employees don’t care or have no expectation of privacy at work—today’s employees expect more care to be taken with their data."
Kevin Mulcahy, an author and thought leader on the future of work, agrees. As employee monitoring technology becomes more popular, it will become increasingly important to keep employees fully informed.
"Consider what action this data collection might trigger: Can employees opt in or out? Can employees review their own data and request edits or deletion?" asks Mulcahy. "Can employees trust the company to make responsible decisions that will not cause me inadvertent harm?"
2. Adapt to remote work.
Even before COVID-19, there was the growing challenge of "deskless workers." These employees don’t work from an office and, in order to track their online activity, companies may have to track their usage of different communication channels, like Slack or Gmail.
"Even something as simple as a high-level overview of how much time employees are spending in work email systems or in meetings can give employers some insights to think about," Eubanks says. "A lot of companies probably already have access to that data, they just don’t know it."
He adds: "Slack is nice for our people in an office, but that doesn’t work for someone that’s putting up utility poles, or someone who is doing pest control."
3. Locate internal influencers.
Most companies assume that information flows in the direction of a company’s organizational chart, Eubanks says: it starts at the top and trickles down to the bottom. However, productivity tracking tech might prove otherwise.
Using these tools, Eubanks explains, management can track which employees are receiving many inbound requests and questions. Employers can use this information to determine which workers are influencers within a company, regardless of their place in the organization.
Identifying influencers can help a company when it comes time to make major organizational change, according to Eubanks:
"During moments of transformation, companies can tap into these influencers as champions for a cause because they have a large reach inside the business."
4. Communicate carefully.
Lastly, companies need to carefully consider how they talk about their employee monitoring initiatives. These discussions should be handled delicately and logically. Employers should begin discussions by reminding employees that this kind of monitoring has been around for a while:
"Monitoring is not new, it’s just that the increased connectivity and advanced technologies of today make us feel like we're being monitored all the time, for the rest of our lives," says Susan LaMotte, the founder and CEO of exaqueo, an employer brand and talent consultancy."But as long as you're not threatening employees’ personal space or privacy, they don't seem to mind."
Companies should let their workforce know what they are tracking for and make it clear that those metrics were designed to benefit employees as well as position companies for success.
Monitoring technology isn’t anything new—and it isn’t going away anytime soon. It will be increasingly helpful, for employees and employers alike, to get comfortable with them. By practicing clear communication, transparency and some encouragement, companies can more easily adopt these capabilities and use them in our increasingly remote work environments.
For more information on productivity tracking and employee monitoring technology, check out this piece from ReWork contributor Jeffrey Pfeffer.