In a time when most organizations can ill afford to watch even one more employee walk out the door, each factor influencing worker retention is receiving extra scrutiny from HR leaders. Among those factors is the use of employee monitoring software, whose deployment grew rapidly during the pandemic as companies sought to keep an eye on employees suddenly working from home.
Global demand for employee monitoring software increased by 66 percent in the fall of 2021, according to research from Top10VPN, a digital privacy and virtual private networking review site. Sustained demand for the technology is 54 percent higher than before the pandemic began, according to the site.
A 2022 study of HR technology use by PwC found that 95 percent of HR leaders have either implemented new methods to track and report on the productivity and performance of remote workers or plan to do so in the future.
Companies are using monitoring software to measure employee keystrokes, oversee use of workplace applications and e-mail, and gauge employees' active versus idle time at their computers. In some cases, organizations use the technology to take random screenshots of employee desktops to ensure they're not spending too much time on social media, or flip on webcams to verify people are sitting at workstations.
Other common uses include deploying monitoring software to validate employee-reported work hours and improve cybersecurity or insider threat detection.
Impact on Employee Morale, Retention
While monitoring isn't new, there are questions about the practice's impact on employee morale and retention, particularly at a time when workers have more employment choices than ever, are still feeling pandemic-related stress and continue to resign from jobs in large numbers.
A recent report from the European Commission's Joint Research Council found that use of monitoring can contribute to decreased job satisfaction, increased stress and increased turnover. A 2021 study by Gartner found that employee concerns about monitoring can contribute to burnout and remote workers not knowing how to "switch off" during their increasingly longer workdays because of fears of being constantly watched.
Intent Makes the Difference
Experts say the rationale behind using monitoring software makes all the difference in whether the technology helps employees be more productive and efficient or it creates mistrust and damages workers' morale.
"There are good and not-so-good reasons to use monitoring software," said David Brodeur-Johnson, principal analyst and employee experience research lead for Forrester. "It has everything to do with what your intent is as an employer and whether your employees trust that intent. If your goal only is to find slackers and punish them, it likely will create problems in terms of employee motivation and retention."
Organizational leaders should think hard about what they want their use of monitoring technology to achieve, experts say.
"If you want to track minutes, you'll get minutes, or if you want to track keystrokes you'll get keystrokes," Brodeur-Johnson said. "But if you want to track outcomes, you'll get outcomes."
Helen Poitevin, an analyst and vice president with Gartner who specializes in human capital management technologies, said if not used with the right intent, monitoring's "trust costs" can outweigh its benefits. But if used with full transparency and more-positive objectives, the technology can help employees with things like learning to use their time more wisely or spotting the early signs of burnout.
"It can be a different story if you use the data collected from monitoring software with the goal of improving the employee experience or worker well-being," Poitevin said.
Most monitoring technologies collect similar types of data, she noted, so the difference comes in how leaders choose to make decisions with that information. For example, the data could be used to show managers or employees if they're attending too many back-to-back meetings, if there is inconsistent distribution of a workload across a team, or if people are sending or reading too many e-mails after work hours.
Using Monitored Data to Avoid Employee Burnout
Teramind is one provider of monitoring software that encourages organizations to use the data collected by its technology to help improve the employee experience. Information gathered by the Aventura, Fla.-based vendor can help prevent employee burnout or potential resignations by identifying known precursors to overwork like tardiness, a decrease in productivity and increased distractions.
"Our reports can be configured so alerts are sent to HR if these things happen so those situations can be addressed," said Isaac Kohen, vice president of research and development for Teramind.
One such situation happened with a Teramind project manager who had a track record of stellar work performance. "We found out her kids had returned to remote learning around the same time we started working on a major product update," Kohen said. "We were able to work out a better schedule with her and get her more help on the update to avoid her burning out."
Like other monitoring vendors, Teramind's software also is designed to help boost worker productivity and optimize workflows by collecting behavior analytics. The software collects general activity data rather than individual employee data, which experts say can make it more ethically and legally defensible. For example, the technology can measure employee outputs like the number of forms completed, e-mails sent, online meetings attended and more.
"Many of our customers want to understand their workflows and processes better in order to optimize those systems," Kohen said.
Importance of Transparency
Experts say being transparent with employees about the use of monitoring software helps build trust and can create more willingness among workers to consider how the technology might produce insights that help them work more efficiently or productively.
HR and legal departments should establish clear privacy and performance evaluation guidelines around the use of monitoring and fully understand how the software works to ensure employee relations and legal compliance issues are considered, experts recommend.
In the interest of transparency, some vendors like Teramind have features that alert employees to when they're being monitored. "Some customers tell us that their employees say knowing our 'revealed agent' is running can actually make them more productive," Kohen said.
The revealed agent can show too many instant messages coming from outside the company or excessive personal e-mail usage without actually seeing the contents of those messages or e-mails, he added.
Legal Concerns of Home Monitoring
While it's long been legal for organizations to monitor employees using company-owned devices and networks, legal experts say companies should tread more carefully when using surveillance tools with remote employees working in their homes.
Philip Gordon, co-chair of the privacy and data security practice group with Littler Mendelson in Denver, said companies can get into legal hot water if, for example, webcams or microphones used in employee homes inadvertently pick up video or audio of nonemployees such as family members.
Audio recordings made without remote employees' consent also can run afoul of laws in two-party consent states, Gordon said, where all parties involved in a recording must first consent to the activity.
State laws also vary on the need to notify employees that they're being monitored and to receive their consent. New York, for example, passed a law effective in May that requires private employers to provide prior notice to employees when monitoring their telephone, e-mail or Internet usage.
Dave Zielinski is principal of Skiwood Communications, a business writing and editing company in Minneapolis.