cute dog on laptop keyboard for employee monitoring tools

How to Choose the Right Employee Monitoring Tools

Employee monitoring tools. It’s a topic that has come up a lot more lately as companies were forced to go remote in order to stay productive during the pandemic. But what are they? How do they work? Is the increase in remote work just an excuse for “Big Brother” type surveillance?

We’ve wrestled with these questions, and we’ve tried out multiple kinds of monitoring tools for a variety of reasons over the years. So we’ve put together the following information to help save you some headaches when you’re trying to choose what will work best for your business.

What are Employee Monitoring Tools?

First things first, what are we talking about. Employee monitoring tools are a type of software that varies widely, from giving you a global picture of how your internet is being used, all the way down to a detailed look at your employees’ screen captures and keystrokes every few minutes.

General monitoring of usage patterns can be quite useful. Information like that can help streamline employee scheduling, as well as proper resource distribution. But there are other, more invasive tools that can be perceived (sometimes rightfully so) as a mechanism used simply to gather information to discipline and terminate people.

So here’s a disclaimer right up front: We believe software is a very poor substitute for clear standards, open communication, and good management. We use monitoring software for security purposes and system diagnostics, but we rely on metrics, client feedback, and one-on-one conversations to measure employee performance.

Why Would You Want to Monitor Your Employees’ Work Habits?

Before installing any software, especially one that can gather information such a keystrokes or logins on multiple machines—which can make it a juicy target for hackers—make sure you fully understand why you want or think you need it.

Use the following questions to clarify that you and your management team have the same goal and that you can determine what type of software will provide useful information.

  • What is prompting this desire? Lack of trust? Lack of productivity? Lack of communication or information?
    When you need system information, a monitoring tool can often be the easiest and quickest way to get it. If you don’t know what your employees are working on, however, directly asking them is often simpler than gathering computer data and trying to extrapolate.
  • Do you need it for everyone or just certain people/roles?
    Perhaps you get regular reports from every department except one. If so, is that because of the staff or the manager? Alternatively, maybe you are new to your management role and you would like some baseline reporting to measure against industry standards.
  • Have you tried any other methods first, such as daily or weekly reports, check-in meetings, project checklists?
    If your goal for the software is to help determine remote employee performance, first make sure you have metrics and goals for each position. If those are not being met, then consider whether the stats the software provides will answer questions better or worse than something like a progress report that employees could submit. Or whether weekly video calls as brief as 15 minutes, or implementing a chat tool might not be more beneficial for keeping everyone in sync.
  • What are you looking to track? Put another way, will the information you get back be useful?
    Software that provides system diagnostics can be very clear and helpful. The amount of time a person spends on certain tasks can be useful, but may be only partially illuminating and require follow-up.

What Type(s) of Tools Do You Need?

Once you know what you’re trying to accomplish, you can find a single piece of software or a combination of tools to get what you need.

Monitoring can cover website browsing (sites visited), applications (programs used), emails (viewing work account messages), printers (who is printing, how much, when, and where), phones (call logs and recordings), and computer activity (keyboard strokes and mouse movement).

Website browsing can show the pages employees visit, as well as the time spent with them open or active. So, for example, if you’ve noticed a decline in productivity and an increase in time spent on Facebook or YouTube pages, you might reasonably conclude that staff is wasting work time.

Keep in mind, however, that certain Sales, Marketing, or Customer Service employees might need to be on social media sites. And YouTube has a wealth of helpful training videos that people use to get quick answers to problems or to figure out how to do something.

As another example, using software to monitor printing habits could reveal an employee sending unusually high numbers of documents to a printer nowhere near their desk or office. This could help flag a potential breach of information. On the other hand, it could indicate that one department keeps up with their paper and toner supplies better than another.

The bottom line here is that the information you receive from any monitoring tools should not exist in a vacuum.

Some Technical Considerations

Once you know the types of monitoring you need to have, you can look at implementation factors. The following list of considerations should help you narrow down specific software options.

  • Will this software work on your network? Will it interfere with security software already installed on the computers? Do you have all Windows or all Apple machines, or do you need a program compatible with both? Is your company a heavy tablet/phone organization, which probably won’t work well with most monitoring software?
  • How will the software be deployed? Some tools are fully cloud-based, meaning you don’t need any specific hardware for them. Others can be installed on your servers, which will mean determining whether you have the server space and staff available to maintain them and keep everything secure.
  • Are you concerned about employees’ personal machines? If so, then any kind of monitoring tool may be a wasted exercise as employees are unlikely to give you permission to install such software on their personal devices.
  • Do you need access to the camera if there is one? Some software can periodically take a picture of who is using a laptop, for example.
  • Do you need GPS or Geofencing features? Location tracking can provide information on employees who travel a lot for work and can be useful during disasters, such as hurricane evacuations. Geofencing typically sets up a geographic area and triggers notifications or alerts when users are in or out of it.
  • Reporting: how will the information come back to you? Will it be lists and logs you have to sort through? Are there built-in alerts for certain activities, timestamps, or keystroke combinations? Will it include screenshots? Is there a built-in archive for historical searches that may become necessary?
  • What is the reporting timeframe? Will be daily, weekly, etc? Can you view information in real-time?
  • If there is a dashboard, how customizable is it? If standard reporting covers what you need, you’re all set. If you want to view different sets of information, will they build that for you? Can you change the dashboard yourself? If you want one, is there also a mobile app for supervisors?
  • Can you set rules? For example, you may want different monitoring based on different employee roles or different shifts. If so, consider how many rules you might need or want and find out if the software allows for that. This may also become a cost factor if they allow additional rules for a fee.
  • Cost: how much will you actually need to spend to use the software? Is there a one-time cost for everything, and does that include any setup fees? Will you have an annual ‘subscription’ or costs based on a number of licenses? Are there any add-on fees for ad-hoc reports or customizing? If you go with the server deployment, will you need to add any staff or hardware? Is support included?

A Few Final Thoughts on Employee Monitoring Tools

Before implementing anything new, find out if you have ways to do any of this already. For example, if your main concern is website browsing, do you already have a firewall or security program that can block the URLs of inappropriate sites, and can you add to that? Do you have any way to implement access control based on employee profiles that could limit or permit different types of program or network access? For productivity purposes, do any of your programs have built-in usage reports that can answer your questions about employee work habits?

Make sure you discuss and clear any potential legal issues. This can include state-required notifications and requests for data or privacy limits. Also check whether the data collected can be used in regard to employee rewards or penalties. For example, if you have union contracts or if the software will not apply to everyone, then would it be fair to determine bonuses based on it? If you use email monitoring, what happens if an employee sends private health information about themselves or someone else—is it legal for you to read/possess it? These circumstances may not ever apply to you, but it is critical that you know your own liability before investing your time or money.

If you decide to implement nearly any kind of monitoring tool, expect that there will be pushback. No one likes feeling watched, and there is an implication of distrust with these kinds of programs. You may avoid some of that by being up front with staff about what will be used, how, and why. There are also options within certain software that can indicate to employees when the software is active or not.

On the other hand, you may be able to use many of these tools without explicitly informing staff, although as mentioned above, you should check into the legality of notification and consent. And you should always count on someone finding out about it. So whether you explicitly tell employees or not, you should have policies or information in the employee handbook that covers the purpose, usage, and employee rights and responsibilities with this.

And finally, keep in mind that for nearly every program like an activity monitoring tool, there will be other software developed to get around it. If you Google “automatic mouse mover,” for example, you’ll find that there is a tool sold by Walmart that simulates computer mouse movement to trick “overzealous” tracking software. Now, it only has a 1 star review, so it may not exactly be flying off the shelves, but that was just one quick example. Not expensive and not hard to get either. Software and tracking can be absolutely helpful and in some cases critical. But it cannot replace a healthy workplace culture or good management.

If you’d like to discuss some specific software options, please give us a call or email.