Companies are finding new ways to track workers at home, but are they going too far?
TORONTO -- Imagine if your boss knew every time you logged on to Facebook, fired off a personal email or stepped away from the computer to wrangle your kids while you’re on the clock working from home.
Employee-monitoring software can offer that sort of digital surveillance into the minute-by-minute activity of employees, and companies that sell this technology — dubbed “tattleware” by critics — have seen a surge in demand from Canada since the pandemic began.
The software is often advertised as “time-tracking” technology but, in many cases, goes far beyond that. Capabilities may include tracking websites visited, monitoring how long an employee spends writing emails, pinpointing GPS location, tallying keystrokes and mouse activity, snapping automated screenshots of an employee’s screen and, in extreme cases, even watching them over their webcam.
Companies that sell the software say it provides clear metrics on productivity and relieves the pressure for employees to prove to their managers that they’re actually working at home. In some cases, productivity data could be leveraged to push for a raise or advocate to work from home permanently.
But critics say the software, while perfectly legal in Canada, can be an invasion of privacy and that a pandemic isn’t the time to be cracking down on employees’ productivity, especially when working from home looks vastly different for workers with kids or loved ones to care for.
Hubstaff, Time Doctor and ActivTrak are among the more popular employee-monitoring software on the market.
Enzo Logozzo, director of sales and marketing for 365 IT Solutions based in Toronto, helps set up contracts for these sorts of programs. Out of about 100 clients his company serves, about half have asked about this software since the pandemic started.
“And I would say from calls coming in, we’ve seen a 300 per cent increase in people calling us to talk about it. Not clients, just other companies that are working from home,” Logozzo told CTVNews.ca.
“There’s always the legality behind it. Can I do this? Should I do this? We always tell employers the same thing: make employees aware that it’s there. And most employees are OK with it.”
Informing employees isn’t just good practice. Employers are legally required to do so, according to Howard Levitt, senior partner at Levitt LLP, an employment and labour law firm in Toronto.
“As long as you tell the employee you’re implementing it, it’s entirely legal,” Levitt said, adding that he thinks the software is fair.
“In my view, if employees are being able to work from home where the employer does not have eyes on them, a supervisor around, then it is legitimate as a reasonable trade-off that they can utilize this type of software.”
PRODUCTIVITY IN A PANDEMIC
The sudden shift to working from home hasn’t always been easy. Many parents have struggled to keep their kids on track with online schoolwork while keeping up with their own careers. Some have even decided to stop following school curriculum.
A recent study of 1,200 adults working from home by U.S. insurance company Colonial Life found that 26 per cent said stress was making them less productive and 15 per cent reported feeling less engaged with their job.
Liam Martin is the co-founder of Time Doctor, an employee-monitoring program that can provide automated screenshots of employees’ computers and track the websites they visit during a shift. Globally, he says his company has seen demand increase tenfold since the pandemic began and Canadian business is “many multiples” of what it was before.
Martin acknowledged that employees may be struggling to keep up with their pre-pandemic workload, but, now more than ever, employers need to be certain they’re meeting their goals.
“At the end of the day, businesses need to make dollars and cents,” Martin said.
“We’re dealing with an unprecedented situation where a very large number of business will cease to exist in the next few years. There is a lot of understanding that (this is a difficult time). But at the same time, if someone isn’t doing the work, we need to address that as quickly as possible.”
Martin said that, in about 90 per cent of cases, there aren’t any “major issues” when an employer tells employees that they’re going to begin using Time Doctor.
“However, there are always people who are resistant to it,” he said.
The main concerns employees raise, he said, are the issues of trust and monitoring.
"We just have to educate them and say this is how you use the tool, this is why it’s not scary. There is a further percentage that really weren’t working to the level before that, and that’s a big reason why people are employing this tool, to find out who are the ones who are focused and who are not.”
ActivTrak, a similar program, has seen a 35 per cent increase in demand from Canada since March 11. That includes requests for information and demos, but not necessarily sales.
Hubstaff, an Indianapolis-based company that offers this software, has seen a 16 per cent jump in Canadian customers since March 1. That’s relatively low compared to global demand, which has tripled in the same amount of time.
Hubstaff CEO Dave Nevogt said the software can provide job security to hard-working employees by allowing them to back up their performance with hard data. It could also reduce the stress of your boss peering over you shoulder as you work.
“One of the reasons why the manager is following up and adding that pressure is they don’t know what’s going on. They’re trying to get that information out of a person, and that’s done manually. With Hubstaff, that happens automatically,” Nevogt said.
“We have people who sign up without their boss asking them to do it. They’re using it for themselves to send metrics to their boss to show to them that they can do this on their own without being asked. It’s a testament to using it for that purpose.”
Monitoring employees’ performance is hardly new. Andrew Clement, a professor emeritus from the University of Toronto’s faculty of information, began studying employee monitoring back in the 1980s when telephone operators were monitored by their keystrokes and lengths of calls.
Clement said today’s crop of software raises some serious concerns. For instance, he said employers need to justify why it’s necessary for them to take automated screenshots of employees’ computers.
“Given that our screens are for many of us an integral part of everyday life, for a whole host of reasons, then that would be too far,” Clement said.
Liam Martin from Time Doctor agrees that screenshots aren’t always helpful, and his own company doesn’t use them. On Time Doctor, employees have access to delete screenshots on the system so their managers don’t see them.
The reason they offer the feature, Martin said, is because they’ve become an industry standard.
“When it boils down to it, we’re focused on productivity. Screenshots are something that the market is asking for. But it’s not something that makes an employee better at their job. In that context, I don’t think it’s necessarily necessary.”
Then there’s the question of trust. Many employers work hard to retain workers and build a lasting positive relationship. Clement said tracking software can send the wrong message to employees.
“I would say for the most part, people are decent and honest and want to do a good job and being treated as untrustworthy or potentially untrustworthy by a system that is checking up routinely and often obtrusively erodes that trust. It’s an indication that the employer doesn’t trust the employee. And the inevitable consequence of that is that the employee loses trust in the employer.”
Productivity data collected by the software, such as how long it takes them to finish a project, could also foster a potentially competitive and toxic work environment among employees, Clement said.
“It frames the employee-employer relationship in terms fo these digital traces and the scores they produce. Good employers see well beyond those and are restrained in the way in which they adopt these measures.”
At the end of the day, employees who have concerns about the sweeping surveillance of employee-monitoring software may not have much power to say no. Unions could offer some protection through collective bargaining. But for non-unionized workers, as long as an employer tells an employee that they’re using the software, it’s legal.
“If they complain, they could put their job at risk,” Clement said. “This is, I would say, unfortunate terrain for employees to be able to exercise their rights.”
So far, employee-tracking software hasn’t been challenged in a Canadian court. At this point, there isn’t any case law regarding employee-tracking software in Canada. Part of the reason could be that this technology is relatively new.
But Levitt added that there isn’t any financial incentive for a private employee to take an employer to court over these privacy concerns because the amount of damages a worker could receive from a court is much less than the cost of their legal fees.
“Instead of encouraging people to sue, it discourages people to sue,” he said.