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6 Min Read

Is Productivity Tracking Software Helpful or Harmful to Employees?

Nicole Klemp

The abrupt shift to remote work in 2020 has dramatically shifted how people work and what employees expect. Post-pandemic, many companies have continued allowing employees to work from home, at least part of the time. But while business leaders have realized many of the benefits of a remote workforce (broader access to top talent, lower overhead costs, etc.), many still can’t shake their one big fear—lack of control. 

Some managers worry that without the ability to stand over the shoulders of their employees, productivity will suffer. This paranoia is prevalent across industries, despite many reliable studies showing that productivity actually increases when employees have flexible work schedules. 

But what if they’re just home watching TV??

To ease their fears, some organizations are turning to employee surveillance tools to keep tabs on what their people are doing at all hours of the workday. A 2022 study by PwC found that 95% of HR leaders have either implemented new methods to track remote worker productivity or plan to do so in the future.

While varying levels of employee monitoring have been going on for years in many industries, it’s a relatively new concept for knowledge workers, and many HR leaders are worried about the effect it could have on the employee experience. 

To see the real impact of employee productivity tracking, 15Five surveyed 1,000 managers and 1,000 employees across the United States, and well, we have some thoughts.

Business is booming for employee productivity tracking software

Because more people are working from home, companies that didn’t traditionally feel the need to track workers are investing in employee monitoring tools. Global demand for employee monitoring software like desktop monitoring, keystroke logging, and GPS location tracking more than doubled in 2020. 

Some employers surveil their employees by tracking when a person’s computer is active versus idle, taking random screenshots of their desktop, or even accessing employees’ webcams to make sure they’re sitting at their computers. 

Our study revealed that employee monitoring software is the top method (54%) that managers use to find out how productive employees are, followed by status reports (53%), digital check-ins (44%), and peer reviews (42%). 

Tracking employees’ every move shows a lack of trust

While more and more companies are adopting or considering adopting software to monitor employee activity, our data shows that it might be doing more harm than good when it comes to productivity. It also seems that there’s a fundamental disconnect between how managers and employees feel about it.

While 68% of managers think productivity software improves performance, 72% of employees believe it either has no impact or actually diminishes performance. What’s perhaps even more telling is that 20% of employees say they would look for a new job if their employer implemented productivity tracking software.

What many employers feel is a way to motivate individuals and encourage higher performance can feel like digital micromanagement to employees. It says they’re not trusted to get things done without Big Brother watching.

Organizations that implement employee activity tracking tools should be concerned not only about company culture and morale but also about the legality of employee monitoring. 

Different federal, state, and local privacy laws regulate how employers can monitor their people, and many require employee consent. The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) of 1986 allows business owners to monitor their employees’ verbal and written communications as long as they can present a legitimate business reason for doing so. However, additional monitoring (like watching an employee on their webcam) is only allowed if the employee gives consent. 

By monitoring employee communications, employers also risk acquiring too much information. For example, if a manager reads an employee’s email about their recent doctor’s appointment, they could commit a HIPAA violation if they disclose that private information to anyone.

While employers have a lot of power in how much they’re legally allowed to monitor their employees, wielding that power can be risky. The burden of protecting employee information falls on the employer. So if sensitive information were to be exposed, a company would be vulnerable to litigation by its employees.

Focus on outcomes, not keystrokes

Employers using tracking software are relying on a very narrow view of productivity. They’re gauging how productive an employee is based on quantitative data, like keystrokes, emails, or time spent on tasks. But productivity is much more complex, and the quality of work is just as important as the quantity—sometimes even more so.

Employee productivity and performance are influenced by many other factors, like company culture, HR policies, and manager support (or lack thereof). Looking solely at tracking data to judge an employee’s ability to do great work is doing them a disservice. Looking instead at the employee’s ability to reach long-term goals and positively impact their team is much more telling than how long their bathroom breaks are.

As David Brodeur-Johnson, principal analyst and employee experience research lead for Forrester, told SHRM, “If you want to track minutes, you’ll get minutes, or if you want to track keystrokes, you’ll get keystrokes. “But if you want to track outcomes, you’ll get outcomes.”

Choose performance (not surveillance) with 15Five

There’s nothing bad or wrong with wanting data about employee productivity. HR SaaS software solutions can be great tools for motivating your workforce—just not when they’re used for spying. 

HR software should help employees connect, align, and communicate, and the data collected should relate to engagement, goal-setting, and performance. This is how you use technology to empower employees rather than cause them anxiety.

15Five offers a combination of subscription software, training, and coaching to enable strategic HR leaders to measure engagement and performance in the flow of work, then empower managers to drive change from the bottom up. 

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