To Track or Not to Track? The Balancing Act of Managing Employee/Employer Transparency

employee monitoring
Photo by Chris Liverani on Unsplash

Employee monitoring technology has grown significantly both in scope and type over the past decade. Forms of workplace surveillance that used to be limited to the largest corporate employers, for high-level tracking of email volume or network-bandwidth requirements, now encompasse a range of tools that provide a high degree of visibility and oversight into almost every aspect of the daily behaviour of individual workers.

Employee monitoring software increasingly popular

Barclays bank is the latest organization to face an employee spying investigation. And with monitoring software becoming increasingly popular in the ‘new normal,’  they are unlikely to be the last. As the capability of employee monitoring technology rises, organizations need to strike a balance between what they can and should monitor.

Long before the term “new normal” was coined, comprehensive employee monitoring was becoming increasingly ubiquitous. A 2018 Gartner survey found that the number of companies utilizing ‘nontraditional employee monitoring’ techniques, which include analyzing employee email content and even their movements via geolocation, rose from 30% in 2015 to 50% in 2018. Gartner saw this trend accelerating throughout 2019, estimating that by the end of 2020, 80% of employers will be using at least one new form of employee-monitoring technology.

With over half of all workers doing their jobs remotely at the moment, the timeline for Gartner’s predictions has undoubtedly been shortened. Faced with this recent, rapid transition to a dispersed workforce, many companies have quickly adopted new systems for monitoring employee activity to ensure continued productivity.

Early stumbles in managing expectations

The road to a functional, distributed workforce has been a rough one for many organizations. Ever since remote working became the norm for many jobs, clashes between employer and employee expectations have been making headlines.

In March 2020, the video-conference tool Zoom came under fire for sharing “Attention Tracking” data with employer admins. Employees who left the Zoom app for more than half a minute were marked as “inactive.” Zoom has since removed the feature from their platform to protect the privacy and security of their users.

Zoom isn’t the only collaboration tool that has been the subject of controversy. After attracting nearly twice as many new users in the first quarter of this year than it did during the previous two quarters combined, the channel-based messaging platform Slack has also come under fire. In response to allegations about message privacy, Slack has been forced to acknowledge a lack of transparency with users about how ‘private’ their communications systems are.

As employers search for continued productivity gains out of office environments, the latest category of tools attracting large numbers of new users is productivity-tracking software suites, like Teramind, Hubstaff, ActivTrak, ProdoScore, and others.

New generation tools

With the capability to provide application-level and behavioral tracking of remote users, anecdotal data suggests that companies are quickly buying up these next-generation tools. One such tool, Produscore, recently reported a ‘600% growth in interest.’ Search-data confirms this recent spike in employee surveillance software.

These tools vary significantly in the degree of transparency they give workers about how they’re being monitored.  Some provide manual ‘punch-in/punch-out’ clocks where employees voluntarily submit to behavior tracking. Others operate entirely in the background without workers knowing what metrics are being collected about their daily activity.

This presents the potential for an asymmetrical information balance between employees and employers when it comes to productivity tracking. Most employees may have developed assumptions about how usage of core productivity-applications (like Google G-Suite apps, or Microsoft 365) may be tracked. But few assume that employers might be taking random screenshots of their computers, even though this is just one of many capabilities’ modern employee-monitoring tools provide.

Here’s comparison of commonly used Employee Monitoring studies from

Employee Monitoring
Feature Comparison of Commonly Used Employee Monitoring Suites

Some forms of remote activity-tracking aren’t new. Anyone using company-provided computers should expect their activity on those machines to be logged in detail. However, many workers may not be aware of how applications on home computers may similarly provide employer-admins data on how they are being used.

Best practices combine employer transparency with employee feedback

A pattern we see emerging is a growing gap between employers’ surveillance capabilities and employees’ perceptions about what degree of employer oversight is reasonable and necessary.

This ‘gap in expectations’ is beginning to produce new incidents of negative PR. The recent scandal surrounding Barclays Bank employee monitoring stems from their implementation of an employee-monitoring suite that provided the bank with standard time-tracking features these platforms offer. While implementing such a system is not particularly controversial in itself, the error that turned their business decision into a PR debacle was a sociological rather than a technological one. Barclays appears to have failed to appreciate how very-highly-compensated workers might react to being overseen like hourly wage-earners.

This kind of insensitivity to the daily realities of employees and their expectations can create avoidable points of friction between employers and their workers. Contemporary behavioral science research suggests that while employees who feel “spied on” often resent their employers, greater awareness of transparent ‘rules’ actually helps reinforce employee productivity.

There are also serious, unresolved issues of data privacy law that may soon complicate how companies handle collecting information about employees.  The recently enacted California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) includes provisions that will require companies to treat employee data with the same strict handling-requirements they do for consumers. Requirements for compliance have been delayed until 2021. However, the liability implications are significant: in the event of a data breach where employee data is exposed, the potential fines levied could be catastrophic.  This is just one of many reasons companies should apply an ‘only as much as needed’ approach to employee data collection.


Currently, it’s hard to tell when work-practices will be ‘returning to normal.’  Even if the current health-crisis abates quickly, many believe that the shift to a high-proportion of remote-workers may be here to stay.

According to another Gartner survey, almost 3 in 4 CFOs plan to transition some of their workers who previously worked on-site to permanently remote positions after the COVID-19 pandemic ends. As a survey conducted by IBM earlier this year shows, at least one in two employees would welcome a chance to work remotely.

As they provide their workers with increased flexibility and independence, it’s reasonable for employers to expect some degree of new oversight in return. But in asking remote employees to acquiesce to greater disclosure of their activity, employers will need to help convince workers that these are necessary trade-offs.

Just because there’s been a boom in workplace surveillance tools doesn’t mean employers should rush to use these tools without considering the consequences of hasty implementation.  There are risks, both reputational as well as legal, to over utilizing employee-monitoring surveillance. Until some norms have been set for how remote-management is done best, we advise maintaining a ‘one step at a time’ approach, where feedback and buy-in are received from employees in advance.

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