Not a One-Size-Fits-All Solution

    Executive consultants question the broad application of such technology. “It tends to be the more transactional companies, like insurance processing claims” or early adopters like call centers, which are moving to outsource or automate, says Bertels.

    Executive mentor David Kinnear says monitoring is a topic that comes up in conversations, but none of the 25 executives he works with have decided to implement it. “Up to a point, we’re seeing creativity and productivity improve at home,” he says. Knowledge workers in particular could feel too constrained by monitoring software, which doesn’t allow time away from the computer to reflect on data, let their mind wander and then settle before producing a report.

    “You can (already) track a lot of activity with security tools. Our experience is a vast majority of managers don’t want it,” says Ryan Barton, CEO of Mainstay Technologies, a security and IT firm that services 200 organizations in New England ranging from 50 to 500 employees.

    Kinnear, Barton, and David Belden, a retired consultant who reorganized offices in Europe and Asia, go as far as attributing monitoring technology to insecurity among managers who are used to glancing at employees in cubicles versus focusing on outcomes-based results. (Kinnear did have to address a fear among middle managers in his cohort that they were no longer needed as employees went remote.)

    Belden advises focusing on outcomes-based management rather than implementing monitoring software, despite the temptation to dive into the data. A few practices he recommends over monitoring: clearly communicate expectations for deadlines and work quality; require employees to check in weekly with a paragraph listing concerns, unexpected challenges, and proposed solutions; and hold workers accountable if they consistently miss goals, which could indicate poor time management skills.

    “Micromanagement never increases productivity,” he says. “If you have a whole group of people you don’t trust and you think you have to monitor them every single day then all of the energy of the company is going internally.”

    Best Practices for Monitoring Employees

    If the strategy does make sense for your team, be sure to implement it by the book. California, Connecticut, Delaware, New York, and Texas legally require employers with places of business anywhere in the state to notify employees of the practice. Elsewhere, employers are free to monitor activity on company-owned tools without a word. “It’s not an invasion of privacy,” Barton says, but adding that company policies should make that clear.

    Stay on top of potential policy changes, too. The General Counsel of the National Labor Relations Board released a memo on Oct. 31 stating it would urge the Board to adopt a new framework to protect employees from employers’ abuse of monitoring technology as it relates to protected activity.

    Legally required or not, Harz and Sutton encourage their customers to be upfront about monitoring employees for productivity because the software can be insightful for both employees and managers. About 90% to 95% of companies that use Teramind explain why they’re monitoring their employees, according to Sutton. “You could lose that employee’s trust if you’re not open about it in the beginning,” he says.

    When you do discuss it, choose your words wisely. Harz would rather call the practice digital consumption or behavior instead of monitoring. “When you start with that word it immediately becomes punitive in people’s minds or micromanaging,” she says. “[But] the software can help both the employer and employees succeed from a work-from-anywhere world.”

    By Liisa Rajala