Employee Monitoring: How to Avoid the Most Common Pitfalls [and the alternative]

Published: 2018/3/21 | Updated: 2023/5/10 | Carlos Quintana
Building trust in a team: How to do employee monitoring the right way. And alternatives

Table of Contents

If you decide to implement employee monitoring technology across your organization, you need to think carefully about your management strategy, the privacy of your employees, and the effectiveness of the tools used. Only by doing that will you be able to achieve your strategic goals. The pressing question remains: How to implement employee monitoring without hurting the trust and commitment of your workforce during the process? 

What is employee monitoring

Employee monitoring is anything but new. In fact, companies have always used different kinds of methods to monitor and track the performance of their employees. However, the explosion of remote work and the arrival of powerful technology capable of tracking employee activity in new and innovative ways have refreshed the conversation around this topic.

Employee monitoring is the process of tracking the activities and whereabouts of employees. Companies implement this process using different kinds of technology. Because of its focus on surveillance and productivity, this process is often discussed with alternative terms such as “corporate surveillance,” “employee productivity monitoring,” “employee monitoring software,” and even “screen capturing.”

Considering the above, it is important to say that employee monitoring isn’t synonymous with employee time tracking systems. In fact, time tracking is time monitoring and/or project time monitoring but not employee monitoring.

“One category of employee monitoring technology, time and attendance software, is often seen as an entirely separate set of tools,” explains Business News Daily writer Max Freedman. “Employee tracking and monitoring systems serve other important purposes. Their main goals are to prevent internal theft, examine employee productivity, ensure company resources are being used appropriately, and provide evidence for any potential litigation,” adds Freedman.

Today’s employee monitoring methods

Technology has empowered companies to track their employees in a number of sophisticated ways. From keyboard tracking and keystroke recording to high-definition cameras and intelligent devices (e.g. wristbands capable of mapping movement), today’s businesses have a lot of options to monitor the overall performance and behavior of their employees.

The following are some of the most popular employee monitoring methods that companies are using today to track the activities of their employees:

  • Video monitoring
  • Keycards
  • Network monitoring
  • Email monitoring
  • Employee monitoring software
  • GPS tracking and geofencing
  • Website browsing, application monitoring, and social media tracking
  • Project management apps

Companies use this technology in many different ways. For instance, in an HBR article on employee monitoring, Reid Blackman, CEO of the ethical risk consultancy Virtue, explains how Hubstaff implements random screen capture that can be customized for each person, while Teramind captures keyboard activity and uses that information to generate user-based behavior analytics.

In the end, all these tools are built to collect data and generate reports that are used to evaluate individual performance. However, measuring productivity is not always a straightforward process, and accuracy is often a matter of discussion.

According to Helen Poitevin, vice president analyst in the Gartner HR practice, “The biggest challenge is that the concept of “productivity” is highly context specific. Most often, these technologies are detecting time spent on tasks (e.g., monitoring log-in, mouse or keyboard trackers, etc.) and how those tasks vary – which is not a clear indicator of an employee’s performance.”

The dilemma around employee monitoring

There are two sides to the dilemma of employee monitoring—people who favor it and people who don’t. Advocates and critics have their own arguments in this modern debate, which is mostly concerned today with the use of software to monitor remote workers. Let’s see some of their rationales.

The advocate view

Should employers use software to monitor remote workers? According to Baskaran Ambalavanan, SHRM-SCP and founder of Hila Solutions LLC, “companies have many legitimate, practical reasons for using software to monitor employees working at home.” Some of those reasons include the following:

  • Tracking employee productivity
  • Preventing data theft
  • Guarding company assets
  • Protecting employees
  • Rewarding employees

For some industries, employee monitoring is just what keeps a business in place. “In banking it is a regulatory requirement designed to prevent insider trading. For those working in hazardous conditions or having to deal with asocial behavior in public facing occupations, such monitoring can offer protection to employees,” argues Sara Riso, Research Manager at Eurofund.

Apart from productivity and security, employee monitoring technology offers many more advantages. According to New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, employee monitoring advocates not only believe that the workplace has become a place of measurement, but also that new technology provides more transparency and allows employers to manage better because they are able to really see what people are doing and when.

It is important to mention that many employees (not only companies and developers of employee-monitoring software) are also in favor of employee monitoring systems. In her special report The Rise of the Worker Productivity Score, Kantor mentions an Operations Associate who craves greater tracking because she suspects that a colleague on her team is doing far less than she is. In other words, employee monitoring is also seen as a good tool in terms of accountability.

Many advocates also highlight the impact that employee monitoring has played in today’s new way of working. In his article about employee monitoring, Phil Albinus, former HR Tech Editor for HRE, shares an interesting quote from Elizabeth Harz, CEO of employee monitoring company Awareness Tech: “Employee monitoring has enabled millions of workers to enjoy work-from-home and hybrid work while executives can ensure that people are adhering to the company’s standards.”

Finally, some experts believe that advances in employee monitoring may have a positive impact in terms of management. “The hope is that advances in employee monitoring allow for a much more independent workforce that no longer needs to be co-located or under constant managerial gaze. Also with these new monitoring techniques, workers’ efforts can be assessed on more objective metrics. Thus, managerial biases (vis-à-vis certain groups of workers) can be somewhat kept in check,” argues Boston University Professor Michel Anteby.

The usual pitfalls

On the other side, there are those who are mostly concerned with issues of micromanagement, privacy and effectiveness. “Why do so many managers continue to micromanage where, when, and how their people work?,” asks Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics. Her answer is simple: lack of trust.

Unfortunately, many companies are adopting employee monitoring solutions without abandoning a micromanagement style that reinforces this lack of trust and everything that comes with it. “In a business, a lack of trust leads to disengagement, lower productivity, greater turnover, withholding information and other negative behaviors,” argues Lister.

Along those lines, Kantor’s special report also found out that “white-collar workers described being tracked as ‘demoralizing,’ ‘humiliating’ and ‘toxic’. Micromanagement is becoming standard, they said.”

Privacy is also a big concern for many employees. “Employee monitoring has intruded into our homes and personal domain raising concerns regarding potential privacy breaches. IT has made it possible for many to shift to home working but it has also expanded the possibilities of employee monitoring and surveillance. It is not surprising that the market for surveillance software has spiked,” explains Riso.

Finally, there are people who question the effectiveness of monitoring software. According to Kantor’s special report, the most urgent complaint about the current technology is that it is “inept at capturing offline activity, unreliable at assessing hard-to-quantify tasks and prone to undermining the work itself.”

Kantor illustrates the above with various examples. “UnitedHealth social workers were marked idle for lack of keyboard activity while counseling patients in drug treatment facilities, according to a former supervisor. Grocery cashiers said the pressure to quickly scan items degraded customer service, making it harder to be patient with elderly shoppers who move slowly,” states the special report.

In other words, the pressure to comply with the new technology has ended up hurting employee morale as well as the quality of their jobs. Kantor’s report also mentioned the case of a finance executive who resorted to doing mindless busywork just to accumulate clicks.

3 tips for implementing employee monitoring effectively

As we saw before, employee monitoring can help companies to achieve many strategic goals. However, when this technology is implemented without the right framework (or employee monitoring law compliance), it can raise serious flags in terms of management, privacy, and effectiveness. The following are some tips you can use to avoid these common pitfalls.

1. Provide good communication and transparency

Good communication is probably the single most important thing you need to use when dealing with employee monitoring. “With clear communication, employers can help workers understand how electronic monitoring benefits the business overall. Then, instead of viewing electronic monitoring as the boss looking over their shoulders, employees can see themselves as partners working shoulder to shoulder with their employer to help the company achieve its goals. That benefits everyone,” argues Ambalavanan.

Along those lines, Blackman highlights the importance of being transparent with your employees. He suggests the following actions to achieve that:

  • Tell your employees what you’re monitoring and why.
  • Give them the opportunity to offer feedback.
  • Share the results of the monitoring with them.
  • Provide a system by which they can appeal decisions about their career influenced by the data collected.

Being transparent also boosts employee acceptance rates. In a Gartner study cited by Blackman, “only 30% of employees were comfortable with their employer monitoring their email. But in the same study, when an employer shared that they would be monitoring and explained why, more than 50% of workers reported being comfortable with it.”

2. Focus on relevant metrics and results

We already mentioned the limits that some of the new technology poses in terms of measuring productivity effectively. Because of this, it is important that you choose your metrics carefully and focus on results.

In terms of metrics, you need to choose ones that are relevant. “If you insist on monitoring employees, make sure what you’re tracking is relevant and necessary. Simply monitoring the quantity of emails written or read, for instance, is not a reliable indicator of productivity,” argues Blackman.

Similarly, you need to be aware and open to the idea that you can’t solely rely on screen captures or keystrokes to measure employee performance. “Employees need to be trusted to work from wherever they are most effective and evaluated on their performance outcomes and not just their output,” states Traci Palmer, vice president of people and organization capability for Citrix.

Along those lines, you need to focus on the results. For example, if you hire a copywriter to write an ebook for you, do you really need to measure his/her performance based on screen captures? Wouldn’t it be better to measure his/her work based on the quality of the final ebook?

“In a world that’s increasingly global and mobile, whether people are nine floors, nine miles, or nine time zones apart, the only way to know if they’re doing their jobs is to manage by results. Anything else is just baby-sitting, and the more you treat people like children, the more they will act the part,” states Lister.

3. Upgrade your management style

If you want to implement employee monitoring across your organization without falling into the micromanagement trap, you need to upgrade your management style. How? The first thing you need to do is to acknowledge the fact that you need to provide autonomy and flexibility to your employees. “Hybrid working is only useful if you can rely on the autonomy of your employees,” explains Pieter Nobels, EY Belgium People Advisory Services Executive Director.

You also need to think about employee monitoring as something bigger than the data you collect through mouse activity or idle time. “The monitoring of employees by their manager must therefore not focus on productivity but rather on the commitment and well-being of the employee,” argues Nobels.

In other words, your employee monitoring efforts need to be aligned with a management strategy that is fully committed to the well-being of your workforce. If your employees perceive such commitment, they will feel much more comfortable with any employee monitoring software you may want to use.

And, what do they (we) want? Let’s remember a couple of things:

  • Honest, transparent communication
  • Real opportunities for growing within the company
  • Learning and training opportunities
  • Good salaries
  • A constructive environment where anyone has a voice

Similarly, freelancers and independent contractors feel more comfortable with things like screen capturing if their clients pay well, offer contracts, provide training, and encourage ownership of projects. In other words, when people feel their client or company cares for their professional and personal development, employees will be much more comfortable with monitoring systems.

The less complex alternative to employee monitoring

In the end, effective employee monitoring is about good communication, transparency, relevant metrics, and solid management aimed at empowering your team with flexibility and freedom. Do the pros outweigh the cons? That’s up to you to decide.

Alternatively, if employee monitoring isn’t the right choice for your team, you might consider time tracking instead, which is a different and less complex type of tracking, with fewer or no privacy implications whatsoever. If you’re interested in building a performance and productivity model around project time data, it’s certainly something to consider. Also, there’s the possibility to track simply attendance, and that’s just about opting for a work time clock system.

Do you have any experience implementing monitoring activities across your organization? If so, please feel free to share with us your thoughts, ideas and the lessons you gained from your own experience.

Image credit: Photo by Cody Doherty on Unsplash.

Writer specialized in finance, tech and SaaS. Apart from writing, he loves football and cultural walks around Rome.


That’s a good point that it would probably be a lot more stressful and uncomfortable to have the employees tracked all the time. I feel like it would be better to have a bit more of a laid back method of doing it so the workers would feel more comfortable at work. I feel like doing things like random monitoring for like a day will make it so you could see what they get up to, without having them always being watched.

Employee monitoring is ok and ethical when adopted and interpreted properly. And, also now due to the remote-first work, most of the employees are searching for ways of how to monitor employees working from home, and time tracking solutions become the most used for employee management and that really has benefits for all.

Hi Max,
Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment. Like we said in the article, it’s all about finding the right balance for employers and employees alike. Time tracking certainly has a lot of benefits while still respecting employees’ privacy.

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