The rise in flexible and remote working is driving managers to seek new ways to keep track of their teams. For some, it’s about keeping work visible and balancing resources; for others, it’s about measuring employee productivity, monitoring overtime, and gauging performance.
But when seeking software solutions to these problems, managers inevitably run into the dark world of employee monitoring. It’s made up of invasive surveillance systems that use dystopian methods to monitor all kinds of employee activity. Built on suspicion and distrust, many are even designed so employees can’t trace them.
There certainly is an ethical way to obtain relevant employee data, but it requires managers to go beyond good intentions and choose software that benefits, protects, and hands control to employees. Here’s what to watch out for in your research.
Big Brother employee monitoring software
First, a hard truth: the majority of employee monitoring software is unethical. That is, tools use draconian methods to obtain employee data and the kinds of data they capture go well beyond an innocent interest in performance oversight. Here are a few tell-tale signs of totalitarian employee monitoring systems.
A lot of employee monitoring software immediately betray their inbuilt prejudice against employees from the language used on their websites. They pedal the classic “selfish, lazy worker” trope, using a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to justify the use of spyware. Many adopt the “company security” angle to justify an astounding invasion of employee privacy. It’s capitalism at its most paranoid, a law unto itself.
Here are a handful of examples – taken from the first Google results page for “employee monitoring software” – to illustrate:
Using employee data responsibly starts with only collecting what is pertinent in the first place. But many employee monitoring tools go well beyond legitimate, reasonable interests to capture an absurd level of employee activity. This can include:
- Monitoring all employee internet activity
- Parsing email messages, chats and instant messages
- Tracking keystrokes and mouse movements
- Logging clipboard activities, printing, online searches and downloads
- Taking regular screenshots or recording screen activity
- Offering employers remote control of employee devices
- Accessing employees’ webcams remotely to view surroundings
- Geo-tagging to see where employees are working
Absence of transparency
While employers in Europe are required to tell employees if they are being monitored, in the US there is no such requirement. In fact, only three states have passed bills allowing employees to deny their employers access to their personal Facebook pages. As such, many employee monitoring tools are purposely designed to be incognito, often hidden from “Running Processes” so employees don’t know they’re being watched.
Can employee monitoring software be ethical?
Monitoring of any kind understandably makes people uneasy, but in a workplace context it can spark employee anxiety and stress, crush creativity, lower job satisfaction, and ultimately kill company culture.
When we feel our privacy isn’t respected and we aren’t trusted to do our job, we naturally lose faith in our employer. In stark contrast, when we feel trusted, we produce higher-quality work, experience less stress and enjoy our work more.
However, there is a way to balance employee oversight with trust. Employee monitoring can be ethical when it satisfies these three main points:
- It leads with transparency – workers know what data is captured and how it will be used.
- It offers employees clear benefits – employees consent to sharing that data and understand how doing so will benefit them.
- It protects employee agency – employees maintain full control over their own privacy, ensuring only relevant data is shared with their employers and colleagues.
Keep teams visible without destroying trust
We know not all managers have bad intentions; some legitimately want to use employee monitoring for empowering, practical reasons.
As a remote team ourselves, we know first-hand how difficult it can be to unify a group of people across the globe—ensuring all work stays visible, making sure billable hours are accurately represented, and allocating resources to where they’re most needed. On a more human level, we know it’s ridiculously hard to support someone you never see in person—making sure they have a manageable workload and aren’t headed for burnout.
But we also know trust is central to every team. It’s why we’ve built a time tracking tool that helps keep teams visible without undermining their privacy and professional dignity. Crucially, it actually serves the interests of employees and operates using a model of active employee consent. In a nutshell, here’s how DeskTrack works:
- Only relevant data is captured – DeskTrack only records time spent in desktop and web activity, which allows employees to report on their work and hours; it doesn’t record the content of those apps or take any creepy screenshots.
- Data stays private to employees – DeskTrack records an employee’s data to a private timeline only they can access; no manager or colleague can pry into their activity.
- Employees control what data is shared – DeskTrack lets employees choose what information is publically shared with their teams, ensuring personal or irrelevant data stays private.