Employee Privacy: Don’t Confuse Productivity with Activity

Edward Sattaur was hesitant when he first started using productivity monitoring software. The B2B marketing strategist was then working as director of digital marketing company, Majestic Media, and was part of the team in Bulgaria and Argentina. To supervise and keep everyone up to date, senior management introduced “Time Doctor”. It’s a software tool that allows managers to keep track of which tasks employees are working on at any time and when each task is completed. As a manager, Sattaur monitored his team from Toronto, while he was overseen by his supervisors.

It didn’t take long to decide. “For me, it was welcomed because I’ve always worked at home and engaged in work without clear and defined lines,” he said. “There was a lot of awareness that I always had to manage myself, so launching this tool allowed me to say that alright, weekly I am giving this much time to administrative tasks, this much time to designing content and this much time doing sales and business development stuff and so on.”

As many companies continue to work from home, some are looking at new technologies and techniques to remotely monitor their employees. From virtual clocks to monitoring email and chat to tracking work computer usage, software programs help managers monitor employee productivity and activity. According to a survey by leading consulting firm Gartner, about 16% of Western employers began tracking employees more often around April 2020, but by the end of July, it rose to 28%.

It’s a growing industry. Leading technology companies such as Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, along with many small businesses, provide tools that companies can use to monitor employee productivity. Organizations pay between $5 and $30 per employee to use this technology, and software companies are touting productivity gains of 22% to 32%.

While these technologies are becoming more and more popular, they still pose financial, legal, and reputational risks. Although the tools are relatively cheap, they do not always have a high rate of return on investment, as they can negatively impact employee morale. In many cases, increasing employee turnover or difficulty in hiring replaces IT costs with long-term labor costs. On top of that, not to mention the legal and cybersecurity risks associated with collecting and storing such data, many feel general anxiety when using this technology.

Nevertheless, many administrators favor this technology when it is used properly and transparently. However, as a risk manager, the CFO needs to pay close attention to the strengths and weaknesses of the deployment. It is important to investigate and carefully consider the costs and benefits of using such software.

Trust in Your People

For some financial managers, overseeing the day-to-day activities of employees is inappropriate. VoCoVo’s Katie Bedborough, ACMA, CGMA, and CFO believe that using productivity tracking software is “a fundamental conflict” with the culture she is trying to create. “It tells [employees] that they are not trusted and do not foster a culture or environment in which we want to bring out the best in our employees,” said Bedborough. “We want to encourage innovation…and that happens when people trust each other.” For her, productivity isn’t the “time to sit down”, it’s a line. The quality of the work that was done. “We’re pretty clear about the results we need and how to achieve them. We’re all adults. Let’s leave it to people,” she said. Bedborough also emphasized that the pandemic is putting more strain on many people and that employees should be given more room during this difficult time.


However, many administrators favor productivity monitoring technology and believe that there is an acceptable way to use it. Gartner’s Kropp emphasized the importance of distinguishing between different types of software, considering the ultimate goals of the organization. For example, some companies are looking to track productivity. Employee performance hasn’t declined on average during the pandemic, but some managers are still worried that individual employees’ productivity is declining.

Others are interested in software that helps managers understand their employees and the barriers they may face when working remotely. They are interested in employee involvement, well-being, and overall experience. For example, if all employees appear to be sticking to a particular task or process, tracking software can help leadership get the big picture, identify problems, and make life easier for them. The third goal emphasized by Klopp is to improve communication and connectivity between managers and employees. However, he warned that this could often feel like employee oversight under another name.

The thought process behind it is that a supervisor can just show up and set up a meeting, just like passing someone’s desk, but there are situations where employees feel that they are essentially being monitored and tracked. Regardless of intent, Gartner’s research shows that usage is increasing by many folds. Executives report positive experiences. Lindsey Chapman has been using productivity monitoring technology since she founded Meadows Resources five years ago. Meadows Resources is an almost completely virtual recruitment, placement, and training company serving clients in the oil and gas, technology, and firearms industries. They have an office in Houston, but it’s a flexible workspace and most employees are permanently external. For this reason, Chapman felt it was important for both her and her clients as a manager to know what the five employees and a few contractors were charging. Part of that instinct came from being a former customer of the services she currently offers.

“When I was a consumer of HR, recruitment, and HR consultants, one of my biggest problems was that I didn’t understand what they were doing,” Chapman said. Employees realize they are being monitored so problems rarely occur. Over the last five years, an employee or contractor has recorded time during a search. He said that had happened three or four times, like used social media, but usually, it was an honest mistake—they thought they had punched out and fixed it as soon as it was pointed out. For clients, Chapman said about remote employee monitoring, “I have a client who says, ‘I know more about remote HR personas and recruiters than the secretary in the next room. She may be playing video games.'”

Chapman further said, “This uses two sets of technology. One is called ‘HiveDesk’, which automatically takes a picture of the employee’s computer screen during clock-in, and the other is ‘Hubstaff’, which uses GPS as a time tracking system when the employee is at the client’s site. For a team of 50 people, ‘HiveDesk’ costs $250 per month, while ‘Hubstaff’ plans range from $7 to $20 per user per month.

For teams of similar size, Sattaur’s recommended program, “Time Doctor”, includes additional customer support and screen capture video features ranging from $390 per month for basic subscriptions to $990 per month for premium subscriptions. The cost/benefit analysis, in Chapman’s view, is simple. “Can you put a price on trust? It’s invaluable,” she said. “Honesty and transparency — you can’t put a price on that.”

Best Practices

Ultimately, the first question for management teams considering implementing productivity monitoring software is: What is the purpose?

“If that’s right, ‘whether people are productive’, there may be better tools to prove it,” Klopp said. “If you use it to understand the employee’s experience, what’s difficult for them, what’s broken, and what they’re spending a lot of time on, there is an increase in productivity.” If you choose this type of technology, Chapman recommends that you create your parameters and best practices. “The way we use it may not be the way you want to use it,” she said. In a pre-popular article on the pros and cons of using employee data, Gartner researchers maintain strong communication between key partners such as HR, privacy, legal, compliance, IT, and analytics leaders.

Different stakeholders need to ask each other: what data is used and how? Who can access it and where is the data stored? What policies and procedures are in place to protect your data? Which regulations apply to us? Researchers also emphasized the importance of paying special attention when external providers are involved.

Transparency is Key

Klopp outlined three steps to successfully using productivity monitoring software and maintaining employee trust. First, make sure they know that they are being monitored. Next, I’ll explain what you’re tracking, why, what decisions you use, and what decisions you don’t use. Third, explain to employees when these decisions are made based on the data.

“Then we see that the majority of workers agree that their employers collect this information about them,” he said. Sattaur recommended that the management team carefully explain why they are adopting surveillance technology.

“Frame it as ‘This is our business goal, and this is a management tool to help us manage our resources — it’s not a matter of whether you are working or not, but how that time is being used and what insights we can gain about how to be more productive as a company,'” he said.

Chapman also emphasized the importance of transparency. She goes against the whole issue of trust-building, adding that her company hadn’t had staff changes in five years. According to Klopp, this level of “fundamental transparency” efforts is essential to success. “If you’re willing to do that, there are many potential benefits and upsides. Otherwise, it poses a significant risk that your employees will rebel against you.”