The Effects of Productivity Tracking on Employees
Megan Nicole O’Neal is a writer with a passion for storytelling, empowering others and whenever possible, mixing the two. She draws from her experiences at small to mid-sized agencies, nonprofits and large corporations to provide well-rounded advice for Indeed’s Career Guide.
According to recent WFH research, the average number of days per week employees are invited to work from home rose from 1.58 days per week in January 2021 to 2.37 days per week in June 2022. With millions of employees working fully or partially from home, some employers are turning to productivity tracking software to keep an eye on workers suddenly working further from their managers than ever before. In fact, in April 2020, global demand for employee monitoring software more than doubled.
What is productivity tracking software?
Employee productivity tracking software often goes beyond simple clock-in and clock-out time tracking to help measure employee activity and efficiency. Through a quick Google search, you can find several pages of “Best Employee Monitoring Software” reviews that detail the top software in this trending industry—each of which can vary significantly from one company to the next.
Some software evaluates your “idle time,” meaning how much time you’re using your mouse or typing at your keyboard, while others go deeper to collect things like screen recordings, images through the laptop camera or live views of employee PCs, as well as track emails, keystrokes and even Zoom sessions.
The rise of digital productivity surveillance
You may be surprised to learn that productivity tracking is not necessarily new. Some of the earliest examples of productivity tracking began in 2013 when Tesco required its employees in grocery warehouse facilities in Ireland and the U.K. to wear armbands to track their productivity—the wristbands could track the number of inventory each worker moved, including the workers’ loading, unloading, and scanning speeds. And while the software is said to have reduced the employee’s time spent marking clipboards, it allowed the employers to measure employee productivity data and flag workers who might perform below set expectations.
Nearly ten years later, companies like Amazon also track their warehouse workers’ productivity with similar precision, as well as monitor delivery drivers’ smartphone data to track their efficiency. Yet some smaller companies are leaning on this technology as well.
Other workers—many of whom opted to speak anonymously for fear of retaliation, shared with NPR that their companies adopted productivity tracking as well. One woman at a small marketing firm in Minnesota said her employer started using software that downloads videos of employees' screens while they work. The tracking software also enabled a computer's webcam to take a picture of the employee every 10 minutes to help determine if employees are actively working.
Overall, 8 out of the 10 largest private employers in the U.S. are tracking productivity metrics for their employees, according to an examination by The New York Times.
Why employers may feel the need to track employees
Companies facing an increase in hybrid or remote workforce are navigating new challenges, particularly around how to manage employees dispersed across the country. Worker-monitoring technology might, in theory, help managers understand what each employee is doing without forcing everyone back into the office.
However, some companies might use tracking for security purposes. This is most commonly seen in companies that house sensitive customer data that they want to remain secure, or in retail stores to prevent stealing.
The effects of employee activity tracking
While the number of studies available is limited due to the relatively new technology used in productivity tracking of remote employees, it doesn’t seem employee productivity tracking is having its intended effect. Productivity tracking has been linked to the following:
1. Increased likelihood of rule-breaking
According to research by Harvard Business Review, monitored employees were substantially more likely to take unapproved breaks, disregard instructions, damage workplace property, steal office equipment, and purposefully work at a slow pace, among other rule-breaking behaviors. Workers being monitored felt a loss of agency which may have made them more likely to act contrary to their own moral standards.
2. Eroded company culture
According to Forrester Research, empowerment, inspiration and enablement are the three main factors that drive engagement and better employee experiences. Whereas, micromanaging employees through intensive tracking systems can erode company culture and employee engagement, morphing a once collaborative company into a place of overall distrust.
For example, how many people would feel comfortable sharing an honest concern with coworkers over Slack if they knew private messages were monitored by upper management? Even further, measuring employees based on “productivity” creates a culture that values activity over outcomes and may significantly harm the most vulnerable workers, like
disabled employees who may benefit from more time to complete tasks.
3. Higher rates of employee stress and anxiety
Factors that contribute to workplace stress include heavy workload, lack of perceived control over how work gets done, and fear. Productivity monitoring seems likely to increase all three of these factors. If you’ll remember, the employees who spoke with NPR anonymously talked about their experience being tracked in 10-minute increments and detailed their fear of being penalized for stepping away from their computer or even taking bathroom breaks.
4. Inaccurate depiction of productivity
Many workers report that productivity tracking software only accounts for work performed digitally and doesn’t factor in valuable work performed offline, like phone calls, writing or reviewing printed documents, time for brainstorming and critical thinking, etc.—often leaving inaccurate depictions of a worker’s day. And in some cases, this can lead to decreased wages.
The New York Times found that therapists and social workers at a major U.S. healthcare company were marked “idle” when they didn’t use their keyboard for more than a short while, including during appointments with patients, and were often penalized for idle time. And, according to the New York Times article, some employers have docked their employees’ pay based on the time their software deems “unproductive.”
How to address digital surveillance with your employer
Whether you’re on the job search or have been working for your employer for a while, understanding if and how you’re being tracked could help you succeed in your job.
If you’re on the job hunt, you might consider asking questions during the interview process to help you better understand the employer’s stance on productivity tracking. Questions might include, “does this company use productivity tracking software? And if so, how does [the company] use this data?”
For many, being tracked may not be a problem, but if you believe the methods your employer is using to track your productivity aren’t accurately reflecting the work you are doing, you can discuss it with your manager. It may help to prepare for your conversation in advance by coming up with a list of all the tasks you complete regularly that are outside the scope of a digital productivity tracking system. This might include things like mentoring others, brainstorming and strategic thinking, reading relevant industry news/continued learning, and more.
You might also suggest experimenting with shifting to a task-based model where your employer might set weekly goals in exchange for reducing surveillance as this may align more with both your values and workload.
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