Should Employers Use Software to Monitor Remote Workers?

Two experts debate the issue.

By Baskaran Ambalavanan, SHRM-SCP, and Kate Lister August 24, 2020
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Monitoring employees working at home can increase productivity and improve data security.


Baskaran AmbalavananThe percentage of people working from home because of the coronavirus pandemic shot up from 31 percent in mid-March to 62 percent in mid-April, according to Gallup. A vaccine for the virus isn’t expected until possibly early next year. Until then, employers must find ways to keep their businesses in operation.

Now that the initial transition to remote work is over, it’s time to start measuring and tracking employees’ performance. Fortunately, there are many new software solutions that provide employers with methods to do so. Companies have many legitimate, practical reasons for using software to monitor employees working at home. Those reasons include:

Tracking employee productivity. One of the most common reasons for monitoring employees working from home is to make sure they’re working as hard as they would in the office where their managers can see them. Employers have a vested interest in ensuring that workers are maintaining the same level of productivity and are hitting their targets and goals.

Monitoring software can track computer users’ keystrokes, e-mail and file transfers. It also can record the applications employees use and how much time they spend on each task. Managers can even see periodic screenshots of what’s on an employee’s monitor and detect via GPS when a worker changes location.

Preventing data theft. For most organizations, their most critical assets are their data and that of their clients. Monitoring employees’ computer usage can act as a deterrent to negligent or malicious users who might be tempted to transfer sensitive data. By tracking who has access to specific files at certain dates and times, companies can easily pinpoint any illicit actions. Deterring such transfers can help companies avoid future litigation.

Guarding company assets. Intellectual property or proprietary software, product information and other trade secrets also can be protected by electronic means. Software can alert employers to unauthorized data transfers.

Protecting employees. Monitoring employee e-mail and texts can help protect employees from sexual harassment and cyberbullying by providing proof of a worker’s allegations in HR investigations. Software can detect risky keywords and alert security teams.

Rewarding employees. U.S. employees are working, on average, three hours more each day while working from home compared to before the pandemic, according to NordVPN, which tracked the use of business virtual private networks. That hard work needs to be measured and acknowledged. Tracking those extra hours helps managers measure their employees’ commitment and guides their decisions when awarding bonuses or promotions. It also helps ensure that workloads are distributed evenly.

Employers have the legal right to monitor employees electronically on company-provided devices and across their networks as long as they have a legitimate business reason and obtain employees’ consent. At the same time, employers should respect employees’ privacy and be transparent about their actions. When an employer explains the reasons for electronic monitoring, more than half of workers say they’re comfortable with it, according to a 2018 Gartner survey.

With clear communication, employers can help workers understand how electronic monitoring benefits the business overall. Then, instead of viewing electronic monitoring as the boss looking over their shoulders, employees can see themselves as partners working shoulder to shoulder with their employer to help the company achieve its goals. That benefits everyone.    

Baskaran Ambalavanan, SHRM-SCP, is the founder and principal of Hila Solutions LLC in Irvine, Calif., which provides HR technology solutions. He is also a member of SHRM’s Special Expertise Panel on Global HR.


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Monitoring indicates a lack of trust and leads to employee disengagement and other negative behaviors.


ListerMore than six decades of research has shown that people do their best when they’re managed by results. So why do so many managers continue to micromanage where, when and how their people work? 

The answer is a lack of trust. It has been the biggest holdback of telework since the term was coined in 1972. It’s why, in the wake of forced working from home during the coronavirus pandemic, developers of employee-monitoring software are enjoying triple-digit sales growth.

More than 20 percent of employers have purchased employee-monitoring software since the start of the pandemic, according to data from Gartner. The software includes tools that track keystrokes; log software and Web activity; and record audio, video and electronic communications—and they’re decidedly unsuitable in an age when brains, not brawn, are the means to production.

Chelsea is a 50-year-old registered nurse who recently shared with CNBC her employee-monitoring experience. She had left the world of 12-hour night shifts for a job as a medical case reviewer with an insurance company. It allowed her to work from home and flex her hours around her family’s schedule.

After she had been on the job for a year, the company introduced a new metric for success: keystrokes. Chelsea’s mouse and keyboard had to be active during working hours, except during two 10-minute breaks and her half-hour lunch. The unspoken message was clear: “We don’t trust you.” 

It’s scary to think that people making critical care and medical reimbursement decisions are given no time to think. Not surprisingly, Chelsea and many of her co-workers quit. 

As in any relationship, when trust is lost, the outcome is never good. In a business, a lack of trust leads to disengagement, lower productivity, greater turnover, withholding information and other negative behaviors. 

The great management thinkers of the 1950s—Abraham Maslow, Frederick Herzberg, Peter Drucker—and many since have proved that people do their best when they’re ignited from within. Under this philosophy, the manager’s role is simplified. He or she needs only to occasionally stoke the flame and keep it from setting off in the wrong direction, something that’s easily accomplished with regular check-ins. This works regardless of where, when and how people work. No spying is necessary. 

Supporters of employee-monitoring systems tout them as productivity enhancement tools aimed at helping people avoid distractions. The problem with this argument is twofold. First, if this were true, why does the manager receive the data rather than the employee? Second, we’re not robots. We’re not designed to be mental marathoners. We work best in sprints, and many of those so-called distractions are essential to our well-being. 

If surveillance tools have any role in the organization, such as for ensuring data security or employee safety as they have been used in the past, they should be deployed in ways that are laser-focused on those purposes and available to a limited few.

In a world that’s increasingly global and mobile, whether people are nine floors, nine miles or nine time zones apart, the only way to know if they’re doing their jobs is to manage by results. Anything else is just baby-sitting, and the more you treat people like children, the more they will act the part.  

Kate Lister is president of Global Workplace Analytics, a research-based consultancy located in San Diego. She has been helping organizations implement telework and flexible work practices for more than 15 years.

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