Everything You Need to Know About Employee Monitoring
The term “employee monitoring” reached new levels of popularity in 2020.
We mean that literally.
As businesses scrambled to start working remotely because of the pandemic, the concept of employee monitoring entered the mainstream.
Managers weren’t able to check on their teams in person anymore. Business owners who had long been skeptical of remote work were creating work from home policies on the fly. Other companies embraced remote work wholeheartedly, telling teams they could work from anywhere permanently.
Across all of these different situations was the need to know what was getting done during the day, and having one central system for tracking progress.
Interest in monitoring grew — as did concerns from employees.
On top of trying to carve out corners of their homes for remote offices, employees were getting used to these new processes and had some questions.
How does this software work?
Is it going to record me through my webcam? (For Hubstaff, the answer is always no.)
Why do we need this?
Even as big proponents of remote work, we can understand the uncertainty. Working as a distributed team has its challenges, including communication and learning how to use new technologies.
We also know that remote work isn’t going anywhere. In a 2020 survey, only 15% of respondents said they intend to go back to the office full-time.
Another estimate claims that 73% of all teams will include remote workers by 2028.
In other words, there is a need for remote work monitoring, especially tools that benefit both employers and employees.
In this guide, we’ll explain the pros and cons of employee monitoring (which is also referred to as proof of work software) for everyone on your team. We’ll also cover the legal considerations, how to choose the right software for your business, how to implement it well, and more.
Let us clear things up — for both team members who are unsure of this type of software and for managers who are considering it.
Types of employee monitoring
Employee monitoring varies greatly depending on the software and the industry you’re in. Different work monitoring tools offer a range of capabilities and data.
These days, most remote employees are familiar with the idea of work being tracked. However, many are opposed to features that go beyond knowing that work is getting done, and cross over into what feels like micromanagement or an invasion of privacy.
Internet and app usage
A survey by Salary.com revealed 69% of men and 62% of women admit to surfing the internet for personal reasons during work hours.
Being able to see the URLs your team visits while on the clock can be helpful for onboarding new team members or addressing potential productivity concerns.
For example, if an employee is spending a lot of time browsing shopping sites and has failed to respond to a colleague in a timely fashion, they’re likely not doing work.
Of course, some jobs make this type of monitoring challenging. A social media manager, for instance, will visit Facebook as part of their daily tasks. But if you only look at a list of URLs, you still won’t know if they’re being productive.
However, if you notice team members repeatedly missing deadlines or not communicating, you can check apps and URLs and identify if they’re getting stuck. Or you can see if they lack the tools or training they need to get the job done.
There’s also a security reason for gathering this type of data. Employees that are handling sensitive company data or patient information are putting themselves and their company at risk by visiting certain sites.
URL-blocking and web-filtering are higher levels of monitoring for those who need it. Many employers will restrict their employees from visiting websites with wholly inappropriate content (for example, pornography).
Meanwhile, others may allow potentially “questionable” sites, like YouTube, but for a limited period. Some employee monitoring software offers detailed social media monitoring. In these cases, you can see who is logging on to Instagram, how often, and for how long.
Tracking the location of mobile employees is also on the rise. Using the GPS functionality in a company vehicle, work phone or personal device, managers can determine where their employees are at a given time. They can also review historical data, such as the routes taken between customer sites.
Contractor use this form of monitoring so they can see if their crew is on-site and working when they’re scheduled. Companies with field service teams such as landscapers or HVAC technicians use this data to estimate arrival times and to communicate that with clients.
Hubstaff’s GPS time tracking shows you where your team is throughout the workday.
More than half of all employers check employees' emails. This helps companies identify issues before they become problems.
Also, it can be useful when settling disputes. To give you an example, a Massachusetts judge ordered a company to examine the emails of two employees charged with sexual harassment.
Proponents of email monitoring say that it helps identify sensitive data leaving the company or disgruntled employees who are at risk of leaving.
There’s an argument to be made for blocking suspicious emails for data protection, but the benefits of email tracking might not be worth the stress that employees feel about being overly monitored.
Phone and voicemail
Recording staff interactions with clients, users, prospects, or suppliers is helpful for a variety of reasons.
Let’s say you look at the customer support statistics, and two representatives are getting higher scores than everyone else. If you can listen to their phone conversations from the past month, you can figure out what they’re doing right. Then, you can ask your other team members to do the same. Meanwhile, if someone gets poor feedback, you can uncover why by listening to their calls.
Customer support and sales teams are two of the most common departments relying on this practice.
Still, it is not a very effective work monitoring tool. The practice of leaving voicemails has all but died out.
Instant messengers and softphones
Instant messengers, like Slack, and softphone software, like WhatsApp and Skype, have replaced phone calls, voicemail, and texting because they are faster, more powerful, and cheaper to use.
Remote workers rely on these tools to collaborate, send and receive data, and even socialize. As such, some employee monitoring tools enable managers to track how workers use the software either in real-time or by reviewing recorded information later.
Generally, employers just want to know that data is being shared efficiently and securely. This method can also help settle disputes, such as workplace bullying.
Beyond that, monitoring instant messaging apps isn’t as valuable as some of the other routes mentioned here.
CCTV and webcams
Closed-circuit television (CCTV) cameras remain a useful way to monitor work locations, such as offices or construction sites. Beyond encouraging employees to behave and work efficiently, they are a deterrent for thieves.
The remote work equivalent is to watch employees through their webcams via live feeds or frequent photo capture. Again, this is a contentious method. Some employees compare the technology to “spyware” or “Big Brother”.
It has little to do with the actual work and more with having the ability to directly see what people are doing all day.
With proof of work apps, you can cut this cash leak. For example, time tracking tools let you pay people for the time they’ve spent working — not more or less than that.
The workday can be more efficient, too.
The average worker attends 62 meetings a month, but more than a third are unproductive. Work monitoring tools help employees collaborate better. Thus, avoiding the need for yet another meeting.
And as we have mentioned, productivity rises, as well. A recent study reported a 7% increase in profits when employees knew the software they were using provided activity data.
By using behavioral analytics and bio-data, you can track and even predict employee activity.
Japanese tech company Hitachi developed a smart badge-like ID device for tracking employee happiness, based on "distinct physical movements." With the data, Hitachi could figure out which internal teams were the happiest and why.
Amazon has used wristbands that buzz if an employee is reaching for the wrong item.
The idea behind this software is to analyze workers’ use of language to detect changes in mood or attitude.
That said, regular employee surveys and check-ins with direct reports might alert you to the same thing in a less invasive way.
The pros for employers and employees
Entrepreneurs, executives, team leaders and employees can all stand to gain something from employee monitoring software.
Let’s dive into the most common benefits so you can decide which method is right for you.
But there’s more to it than that.
As an employee, you have visible proof of how long tasks take. The next time a project manager asks for an hours estimate on a new task, you can give an accurate count based on past work.
This provides you with enough time to complete the job, and allows for a more favorable due date.
Useful employee insights
At some point in your career, you’ve likely noticed decreased engagement or dissatisfaction among your team members. Maybe you’ve been a team member that’s felt this way.
For many companies, this is a sign to dig deeper and get to the heart of the problem.
Microsoft did this in 2018 after noticing widespread unhappiness within one division that included 700 employees. The employee data on workplace behavior and habits that they gathered changed how the team approached meetings, emails, and employee transfers to other departments.
Mitch Collier, vice president of product management for StayWell explained, "This data collection allows supervisors to better understand areas ... for process improvements, including in areas of added machinery, new software updates or even the addition of new employees.”
"From our experiences, [this] has been a positive effort to protect the health of employees and to find ways to help employees be more productive and effective in their roles."
Beyond these benefits, it’s important to note that monitoring employees doesn’t just identify the lowest performers. It also highlights the highest performers, making it easier for you to assess what’s working and reward them.
It also makes it easier to agree on achievable goals based on each employee’s performance, which boosts their engagement and loyalty.
Hubstaff, for example, sends out automatic achievement badges when team members reach time or productivity milestones. Employees are celebrated and sent virtual high fives that reiterate how much they’re appreciated.
Wellbeing and fairness
More than three-quarters of the workforce have reported being bullied at work.
Bullying can happen by any means, so monitoring company communications is important. This is especially important as over half of all employees say the bully is their own manager.
Employee monitoring levels the playing field, so employees feel the company culture is fair, and can reference specific examples.
Another benefit of employee monitoring is that it boosts security by ensuring field or mobile teams aren’t in danger.
"If an employee is supposed to be back at a certain time and nobody has heard from them," says Paul Randhawa, senior management analyst at Santa Clara Valley Water District in California, "We can look up on the GPS, see where they’re at and check up on their safety."
This can also increase the security of company assets and data.
Managers tracking emails and instant messages can flag employees sharing passwords without care. You can then arrange for better training or strengthen security protocols if the problem is widespread.
Also, if team members know about the software being used, they are less likely to visit risky websites. This means viruses or malware are less likely to infect your company’s software and data.
As an employee, the chance of accidentally sharing company information or inviting threats is minimized. There’s no need to send tech support that awkward email.
Better transparency and resource allocation
Employee monitoring can have a tremendous impact on your ability to synchronize your teams. If you have access to data from each and every employee, you can get high-level and granular views of what’s happening any time you want.
For example, if you know your graphic designer is taking longer than expected on an assignment, you can give the heads-up to your marketing freelancer. Instead of waiting around, the freelancer can make progress on other tasks.
As an employee, this means you won’t be waiting around for work. Projects are assigned with manageable deadlines and you won’t be asked to get started without having all the pieces in place.
Delegation and control
The more you understand each employee’s strengths and weaknesses, the better you can delegate.
Successful delegation fosters collaboration, helps employees grow their skills, makes the business more productive, increases team trust, and lets everyone focus on the bigger picture.
None of this will happen if you’re assigning tasks to the wrong people. When you know your employees’ strengths, you can allocate tasks to suit their talents.
Sometimes, that means assigning a task to the person who’s least equipped to handle it, so they improve and can grow in this area. Other times, it means giving projects to the person who can do it in their sleep. You cannot make either decision without great data, which employee monitoring tools provide.
But delegation doesn’t mean giving up all control. Most proof of work software allows you to customize it for your specific needs. You can access the most relevant data without unnecessary distractions.
For employees, this means fewer interruptions and check-ins are needed.
Meetings and regular status updates can take you away from your most important work, which can be detrimental when you’re up against a deadline.
Corey Ciocchetti, associate professor of Business Ethics and Legal Studies at the University of Denver, said, "It is more efficient to monitor employee hours via software as opposed to on paper as it reduces hours inflation and human errors."
With the right employee monitoring tool, you can automate much of your administrative duties like payroll, invoicing, and more.
For example, Hubstaff tracks employee work hours and integrates with payroll, so you can automate timesheets, invoicing, and payments.
You only have to set a team member’s client bill rate (and a separate pay rate for payroll) once. Then every time you need to invoice a client or pay your team, the amounts are calculated based on hours worked and ready to be paid.
Emails and instant messaging
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) protects against the interception of in-transit digital and electronic communications. However, there is an exception for businesses.
Employers have the right to access the communications of an employee on any systems provided by the employer when done in the ordinary course of business. This includes email and instant messaging.
Employee Matters director Natasha Hawker explained, "I think people are under the illusion they can send emails and no one's going to look at them. But the employer can review your emails because it's their company property."
CCTV and webcams
Security cameras are common in physical workspaces and pose no federal legal issues. Yet some states restrict the recording of employees, and cameras that record audio can run afoul of wiretapping/eavesdropping laws.
While many employees consider webcam monitoring too much, it is legal for employers to use this method to observe their workers.
Laws prohibiting people from opening letters delivered by the U.S. Postal Service are restricted to the delivery of the item. In fact, the item is considered delivered when it arrives at the printed destination, not in the hands of the addressee.
Thus, you may open any employee mail if it is addressed to the workplace.
If a call is made on a company-issued phone device/SIM card or during business hours, the employer may listen to and record it.
Location and vehicles
It’s legal to track employee location if the company owns the mobile device or vehicle. You can track employees using their personal devices and vehicles, as well, but it’s a little more complicated.
To avoid getting into hot water, there are a couple of measures you can take to stay on the safe side.
Step 1: Provide the tracking equipment. There’s always a lower expectation of privacy when an employee is using company property rather than personal devices.
Step 2: Ask for the employee’s consent. Once you’ve gotten approval from the person you’re monitoring, you don’t have to worry so much about legal rights.
Step 3: Don’t monitor non-business activity. Many employees expect a reasonable right to privacy, and giving it to them helps establish trust.
Social media content
While you can monitor and restrict your employees’ use of social media during business hours, you cannot request to access information that is otherwise unavailable and that is not already in the public domain. For example, private Facebook messages sent or received outside of working hours.
Of course, there is a difference between what employers can do legally and what you should do. It is possible to monitor workstations and track behavior within the confines of the law and still damage trust and morale.
Depending on the laws of the states within which your business operates, you might not have to tell your employees you are monitoring them. We recommend you do either way, however.
First, you can avoid unnecessary legal disputes if you already have permission from your employees to track them.
Second, your employees will consider you to be an open and honest employer. This will encourage a company culture where your employees trust you and are open and honest in return.
If you collect employee data to streamline and improve project work and company processes, you are using your proof of work tools correctly. But if you use them to spy on your workers for the sake of it, then you are being unproductive and potentially harmful.
Collecting data outside of work hours
If you use information about an event that took place outside of work hours to incriminate someone, other employees and perhaps your clients will frown upon it. It is precise because this is unethical that it could hurt your reputation and ability to retain team members.
What each app tracks
See how the Hubstaff apps differ in what they capture and keep track of while you’re working.
Using plain language is especially important. If you hide behind legal mumbo-jumbo, your employees will feel like you’re trying to pull one over on them.
An example of a badly written policy
The Company has the capability to access, review, copy, and delete any messages sent, received, or stored on the email system. The Company reserves the right to access, review, copy, or delete all such messages for any purpose and to disclose them to any party (inside or outside the Company) it deems appropriate.
An example of a well-written policy
To make sure nothing sketchy is happening via email (which unfortunately is something we have to worry about), our company uses software that lets us open, read, copy, and delete any message that goes through the email system. That means any message that an employee has sent, received, or saved from a work email on the system. We can also share these emails with anyone (whether they work at this company or not). Of course, we’d need a good reason to do so. For example, if one of our employees shared a trade secret or if private information was shared so we can address the situation.
Employee monitoring policy template
The best way to ensure you are operating legally and ethically when monitoring your employees is to get their consent. Include an employee monitoring policy in their contract and ask them to review and sign it.
Including a policy is also useful because it ensures every employee is aware they are being monitored (which generates trust). Also, it is an opportunity for you to dispel the myths and share the benefits of employee monitoring.
To help you get started, we have created a template policy for you here. Unlike most policies, this one includes a brief list of the advantages of employee monitoring, so your teams can understand how tools like Hubstaff benefit them, as well as the organization.
You can download the template and modify it to your specifications.
But please remember that this is just a template. Make sure to add details about local or state laws with which your business must comply.
As comprehensive as this guide is, there is more to know. As the demand for employee monitoring software grows, so, too, does the range of available solutions. And as technology expands what can be monitored, it is your responsibility as a business leader to comply with the law.