When You Should – and Shouldn’t – Monitor Remote Staff


It took Adam Satariano less than an hour. Writing in The New York Times last year, he explained that he had started work at 8.49am. He responded to emails, browsed the news and scrolled Twitter. (As a journalist, it’s just possible that reading a newspaper and flicking through social media could count as “work.”) At 9.14am he started editing an upcoming story and read through his interview notes. By 10.09am, though, he was lost. His work momentum gone, he started reading about the Irish village where Matt Damon was living at the time.

All of that activity, including his interest in Matt Damon’s Guinness refuge, was available to his employers to see.

That was because Satariano had downloaded employee-monitoring software made by Hubstaff. Every few minutes the software took a screenshot of the websites that Satariano visited, the documents he was writing, and the social media sites he viewed. It calculated the amount of time he spent doing something work-related and compared it to the amount of he spent… engaged in other activities during workhours. Using his phone, it also mapped his location. His employer was able to see that not only did Satariano know more about a village in Ireland than he needed to know, but that he had also taken a two-hour bike ride through a local park with his kids in the middle of the workday.

“Whoops,” he said.

As Covid has pushed employees out of the office, it’s also led to a rise in demand for employee monitoring software. One survey conducted last year found that as many as one company in five had either implemented or was planning to implement online software to monitor remote employees. Among large firms, 16 percent had introduced remote tracking and a further 11 percent were planning to.

That demand came even though 60 percent of decision makers didn’t think remote working made staff compliance harder, and almost half felt that remote working had made employees more loyal and less likely to leave.

Employees are enjoying working from home, at least some of the time. Companies, though, are willing to risk the goodwill that flexible working has produced in return for the increased management of productivity and compliance that tracking software can bring.

Big Boss Is Watching You

Employee monitoring software works in a number of different ways. Hubstaff includes an activity monitor that counts the percentage of time every ten minutes the worker spends typing on a keyboard or moving the mouse. It also takes screenshots and provides lists of the apps and URLs that the worker uses and opens. Teramind, a rival service, also tracks key strokes, compiles lists of the social media sites an employee visits, and issues alerts when it detects customizable anomalies in an employee’s behavior.

Take a long break to call a friend in the middle of the workday and Teramind can tell your boss.

Teramind, however, sees its product as a hybrid monitoring solution. The platform can improve worker productivity by enabling managers to check their workers’ activities but it can also mitigate corporate threats.

Companies that have sent their staff home don’t only run the risk that team members will goof off—perhaps by taking a two-hour bike ride in the middle of the day. They also risk compliance and confidentiality issues. Media companies have to protect their content from leaks when editors and coders are accessing servers from their home networks. Marketing firms have to be sure that employees working from home aren’t downloading client lists to take to their next company. Financial companies need to make sure that employees aren’t trying to read or download account data to which they shouldn’t have access. Last year, 34 percent of the compliance teams in financial services companies spent up to three hours each week just updating policies and procedures to reflect new regulations.

Teramind’s monitoring software “has a very strategic role in preventing data leakage, especially now that employees are working in environments that lack traditional security measures,” says Eli Sutton, Global VP of Operations at Teramind. “Further to that it can assist organizations in staying compliant with certain industry standards.”

But while demand to resolve those confidentiality issues has always existed, it’s now been overtaken by a desire from companies to track their remote employees’ productivity.

Before the pandemic, says Sutton, about 70 percent of Teramind’s customers were interested in the product’s security side. That demand has more than doubled. But because demand for productivity monitoring has grown even faster, about 60 percent of Teramind’s customers are now primarily looking for a productivity tool. They want to be sure that the people they’ve sent to work from home are indeed working, and not watching television or browsing Facebook.

That need for productivity monitoring might seem unnecessary and even counterproductive. Researchers have found that two of the main advantages of working from home—benefits that have a positive effect on creativity—include autonomy and time management. Working from home means that you can do your work at a time and in a way that suits you.

Nightbirds can start late and work until the morning. Parents can take a long midday break to ferry children around before heading back to the desk when the family has gone to bed. Everyone has time to think, free of interruptions from bored colleagues, and no one has to waste hours in morning and evening commutes.

As long as an employee is meeting their deliverables on time, why should the company care how they manage their day? If they are goofing off, surely the effect would be clear in their results. Managers would see that sales staff are failing to bring in the conversions they need. Coders would be missing their deadlines. The quality of pitches and the number of conversions would decline.

That effect can take time become clear to managers, warns Sutton. “Months can go by before they come to a realization that something is wrong whereas tools like Teramind can provide that same insight (if not more) in a matter of minutes.”

Companies can also manage a larger bank of employees at the same time, he continues. An executive who has to manage a team of 50 in an office could manage a team of 250 by using monitoring software, receiving alerts when someone isn’t logging in or isn’t sending out enough emails. “It’s that managerial scope that sets Teramind apart,” says Sutton.

Customers using the service have experienced increases in productivity of as much as 60 percent in a matter of months. Other firms have been able to catch malicious employees who were either stealing or whose data breaches were costing the company money.

For Sutton, it’s not just increasing profits. “It’s also about mitigating losses when you take into consideration the average cost of a data breach was $3.86m in 2020 and currently $4.24m in 2021.”

Who Should You Monitor?

Adam Satariano’s editor wasn’t interested in the productivity measures that Hubstaff’s software produced nor did she want to see which websites her journalist had visited during the day—even though his productivity typically came in at less than 50 percent. For an editor, that data has limited use in measuring productivity. Monitoring software only tracks computer activity. It doesn’t follow the amount of time journalists spend calling sources on their phone, reading printed reports, or thinking through the structure of an article.

The only question an editor needs to ask of their reporter is whether the story is delivered on time, at the right length, and properly sourced. She doesn’t need to be sure that the reporter was at their desk all day.

Nor are journalists the only employees for whom monitoring software is of limited use. IT workers have grown used to ignoring time clocks. They expect to work late so they come into work late. They assume that when there’s a crunch they’ll be in the office at the weekends and seeing little of their families before a deadline. Workers in the video game industry have reported working as much as 20 extra hours a week on top of their standard 40-hour workweek during a “crunch.” Only 8 percent of them reported receiving any extra pay.

Workers used to putting in unpaid overtime might well argue that if their employees aren’t counting the extra hours they do work, they shouldn’t be able to able to count those hours when they don’t work. As long as the work gets done at the right quality and on time, the employer should be content.

Companies paying by the hour, though, and employing staff who are thinking more about their pay than their careers or their results, might have more need for closer monitoring. Software engineers can be trusted to get their work done; customer service reps might be more inclined to skip calls or even work a second job at the same time they’re charging for the first. They’re also more likely to make up the kind of staff that Teramind customers can manage 250 at a time.

None of that, though, is of much help employees who feel that their bosses are looking over their shoulders, even when they’re taking a break. Faced with monitoring that’s even closer than the management they experience in the office, many might prefer not to bother with working from home. At least someone who stacks shelves in a supermarket can nip out for a coffee break without anyone noticing.

So companies that use monitoring software need to be upfront about it. They need to tell their staff exactly what they’re looking at, and how and why they’re doing it.

And as for staff, they might want to leave an Excel sheet open when they take their kids to the park for a couple of hours.

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