What are employee monitoring tools, and how do they work?

Employee monitoring tools are vital for home workers, but they come at the cost of personal privacy

Monday, 22 April, 2024

As is often the case, the supposedly modern phenomenon of employee monitoring traces its origins back to an age before the world wide web and home computing.

Henry Ford was an early advocate of the principles of keeping tabs on his workforce, though even his forensic mind couldn’t have foreseen the possibilities afforded by the internet.

Today, a global workforce that’s increasingly reluctant to commute into the office is monitored and surveilled using a variety of cloud-hosted software platforms.

Ostensibly designed to gauge productivity, these tools can actually be much more intrusive than that.

In some cases, they’re watching your every step, move and keystroke – potentially without you knowing…

They got your number, they got your name

Employee monitoring tools work on almost any hardware, from operating systems to servers, and from mobile devices to keyboards.

In terms of employee activities, they’re capable of monitoring file transfers and web chats, printer and clipboard activities, website and application usage alongside live activities.

They prevent users from engaging in certain activities, automatically recording any potential violations and even giving administrators remote access over employee hardware.

More importantly, many packages identify unproductive behaviour – a cursory nudge of the mouse every two minutes to prevent a screensaver activating, for instance.

More comprehensive packages generate risk scores, audit trails and work efficiency charts, with data collated into individual, team, department and company-wide reports.

And while this clearly benefits managers more than staff, these tools may also be used to manage personal time off, check benefits and file documents.

While most software systems reveal their presence on device startup, or display an icon on the taskbar, some run stealthily in the background without being noticeable.

This sounds a bit sinister…

Recognising that many people are unhappy about granular supervision of their activities, actions like keylogging and pre-scheduled screenshotting have gradually fallen out of favour.

This means companies can’t check exactly what’s being typed at any given instant – merely whether devices are in use and which software packages are being harnessed.

Employee monitoring tools often augment antivirus packages by blocking dangerous or suspicious apps, URLs and content, helping to reduce issues like malware infection from USB sticks.

It’s incumbent on companies to inform staff at the recruitment stage about their use of software, and to clearly communicate why it’s being introduced among existing workers.

While there are justifiable concerns about overreach and web browsing privacy, hard-working employees can use this software to demonstrate how productive they really are.

At the same time, less conscientious colleagues have fewer opportunities to abuse work time by browsing social media, walking the dog, playing online games – or even applying for other jobs.

Employees have to recognise that home working is a privilege rather than a state-sanctioned right nowadays, and their productivity levels need some form of supervision.

If a line manager can’t walk up to check what they’re working on, an alternative method of oversight may be required.

Even in the office, shirking and unproductivity often occur when the boss isn’t around, so these software platforms are equally effective at scrutinising office-based staff.

Monitoring tools are often used in partnership with flexible working – ensuring minimum hours are worked each week, but not necessarily over the traditional 9-5 period.

Hard work can be rewarded where it’s identified, with surveys showing staff are more receptive to these tools if they bring tangible benefits such as incentives or performance-related bonuses.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!