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You can track employees working from home. But should you?

"The biggest thing we need to track right now is mental health, not if people are getting a 5% or 10% productivity boost."

Illustration of an eyeball inside a computers screen

The challenge for employers is navigating the needs of the business while empowering and trusting employees to work at a reasonable pace amid increased stress.

Photo: MHJ via Getty Images

As companies across the globe shift to a work-from-home model due to the coronavirus outbreak, employers have plenty of tools available to track what workers are doing. The question is how much should they do it?

Common enterprise software tools, from Zoom to Google Drive, generate copious amounts of data on the way employees work. Many of the tools — such as admin consoles and audit logs — are designed for compliance and security purposes, but they can also give employers insights into who in their organization may be floundering. The challenge for employers is navigating the needs of the business while empowering and trusting employees to work at a reasonable pace amid increased stress.


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A world of tracking tools

Amid the outbreak, applications specifically designed to keep tabs on remote workers are seeing a spike in interest. For example, Time Doctor, an app that records work tasks, has had more sign-ups in the last week than it did in the last quarter, according to Liam Martin, the company's co-founder and chief marketing officer. "As a software company, I never thought we would run out of capacity. I now have to pick and choose who can use our technology because our server infrastructure can't hold together," he said. "All our software engineers are working on this now to expand that out and make sure our current customers are being served properly."

But even without time-tracking tools, employers can still keep tabs on employees through the dashboards and logs provided by many workplace apps.

For example, Zoom, the videoconferencing app that has seen a surge in popularity in recent weeks, has a usage report that lets administrators and owners look at the meetings, participants and meeting minutes for each user. A post on the company's website touts another analytics feature: "The report on Inactive Users tells you who isn't using Zoom — so you can yell at them that they should be Zooming!" Even if an employee is using the app, an attendee attention-tracking feature can let hosts see if users are actively viewing the meeting. A Zoom spokesperson said in an email that the feature was built for training purposes during screen sharing, is turned off by default, and does not track audio or video content.

Asana, a project management tool, has an admin console that provides insights on things like who are the most influential members in an organization (actions like teams created, projects shared and invitations sent go into the calculation) and lets administrators sort employees by their last activity on the app.

Salesforce has monitoring capabilities that let administrators keep tabs on things like when a user logs in and the training classes they've taken. Google Drive has an email alert feature that administrators can set up, so they're notified every time someone creates or deletes a document. Dropbox has an administrator dashboard that shows active members as well as the date, time, location and IP address of activities such as logging in and editing files.

Salesforce and Dropbox did not respond to interview requests. Google directed us to its help website.

Although some of these analytics tools were created with productivity and employee monitoring in mind, many stem from compliance and security needs, said Chris Rothe, co-founder and chief product officer of the computer security firm Red Canary. If a company is involved in a lawsuit, for example, it may need to retrieve messages, documents and other information, as well as precise details on when that activity took place. Additionally, if a company is breached, cybersecurity experts might use this data to trace what user accounts were compromised and what files may have been accessed.

"There's the potential to leverage these tools to enforce management when you can't see over your employee's shoulders. It might be better than nothing for a manager who's worried that their employees are taking time off," he said.

The need to trust

Rothe said his own company doesn't take this approach and encourages managers to communicate directly with employees instead of "sneaking around and looking at logs." Makers of these tools also said it can do more harm than good to use these tools to essentially spy on employees.

Slack CEO Stewart Butterfield told Protocol in an interview: "The area to expend that effort is not in tools to monitor employee behavior, but in culture and basic management so that you don't need to do that … If you suddenly have three kids at home and you're trying to share the kitchen table with your spouse to do videoconferencing, that's a tough situation to be in. And if you try to manage a group of knowledge workers the way that, like, a shift supervisor manages fast food employees, you're not going to get the best out of people."

A spokesperson for Trello, a work organization app owned by Atlassian, said in an email that managers should be empathetic and trusting as workers deal with new stressors, which may include sick loved ones and taking care of kids. "Businesses need to trust their employees to do their best under these circumstances (and if you can't, why did you hire them?)."

There are a number of other apps that are designed to monitor employee productivity, but these are often built with transparency in mind. Time Doctor, for example, makes the data available to both the manager and the employee. Martin, the company's co-founder, said all of its 100 employees share their Time Doctor data so that everyone can see exactly what everyone else has been working on.

"Most employers find time tracking to be a critical tool to figure out how productive employees are when working remotely. But it's important to empower the employee to have access to all that data [so they] can take actionable changes in their lives to become more productive. Big Brother tools where only the employers can see the data aren't useful," he said.


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Another benefit of letting employees see their data is that it can help them disconnect from work. With people told to stay inside, they might start working around the clock, which can add to the stress, Martin said. "There's a significant mental toll working from home is going to have on people. People need to keep themselves disciplined to disconnect from work."

Alex Hood, the head of product for Asana, said his company launched a tool last year called Workload, in part because they found in studies that many employees feel overworked, which can take a toll on morale. The tool gives managers visibility into how much employees have on their plate, and lets them reassign or reschedule tasks if a worker is at their capacity.

"The biggest thing we need to track right now is mental health, not if people are getting a 5% or 10% productivity boost," Martin said.

Tom Krazit contributed reporting.

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