Staff monitoring software, bossware, and ethics

Monitoring the hours your remote working staff spend “at work” is important. But the invention of employee productivity monitoring software – a.k.a. “bossware” – has raised all kinds of ethical questions.

Is it okay to keep an eye on your team’s activities when they’re in their own home? Is there any reason why you would or should?

Let’s have a little chat about it.

What is bossware?

“Bossware” covers a whole range of employee surveillance software products. They’re designed to enable the monitoring and surveillance of a company’s employees while they are working remotely.

The intrusiveness of these tools varies. Some simply have employees record their activities over time. But some “tattleware” can take screenshots, track the websites they visit, and even log keystrokes or mouse movements.

This all occurs without the employee usually realising. Some bossware even lets an employer remotely take control of a team member’s device. In fact, 11 of the 26 leading staff monitoring applications offer this functionality.

Businesses in some industries have been using this software for over ten years. Most delivery drivers are used to being tracked by their GPS coordinates, for example.

Yet the huge surge in remote working caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has seen the use of bossware spread in a big way.

Is bossware ethical?

The real question surrounding bossware should be, “Is using this something that fits the kind of business you want to be?”

For most people, the answer is “no”. Even the idea of employee monitoring software feels pretty Orwellian.

With some tools, you can literally watch what employees are doing in their own homes via webcam. The word many people would use for that is “spying”.

It’s pretty sticky stuff in another way too. Providers Teramind and Time Doctor, for example, have created software that is intentionally designed to be very difficult to remove from a system.

Does remote employee monitoring software work?

One counter-argument would be that employee monitoring software at least delivers big benefits in productivity and keeps teams focused and on track when working from home.

Unfortunately, this doesn’t really seem to to be the case:

1) Intrusively monitoring employees can be counterproductive

 At the start of the pandemic, many employers were more than a little sceptical that their employees would work as well in their own homes as they did in the office.

With so much data now showing that working from home is just as – if not more – productive than working in the office, many of these fears have been laid well and truly to rest.

In fact, quite a lot of evidence has found that closely monitoring your employees is actually counterproductive. In a recent survey:

  • 28% of workers said it made them feel unappreciated
  • 59% said it caused them stress and anxiety
  • 43% said they felt their trust was being violated

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that feeling like your every move is being observed isn’t so good for sensing your employer has your best interests at heart.

2) Measuring productivity is tough

Very few jobs have nice easy metrics available for directly measuring productivity. Time taken divided by tasks completed is one calculation that’s sometimes used, yet it’s not really relevant most of the time.

What about creative tasks? Is time taken to create a new marketing campaign the best measure of how productive the process has been?

Some employees even reported managers would contest their reported time for given tasks, saying it should have been possible to do them more quickly.

Arguments in favour of this kind of software tend to place office work on a pedestal. Time spent chatting with the colleague on the next desk, watercooler conversations, time-wasting meetings, and other normal parts of in-office work are conveniently overlooked.

Can you make bossware more ethical?

All of that said, are there any ways you could make employee monitoring software ethical – or even useful?

1) Use it to support not spy

Establishing a good work-life balance is often touted by work-from-home fans as being one of the key benefits of the format.

Yet many people working remotely say they actually find it more difficult to “switch off” or log off from work. They end up working longer hours and risk burnout by doing so.

Of course, if you’re an evil corporation, that’s great news. But if you’re a caring employer, one potentially beneficial use of employee monitoring software is to make sure your team switch off when they’re supposed to.

This has been shown to make teams more productive. It also prevents burnout and helps deliver that great work-life balance we’ve all been dreaming of.

2) Make staff aware of bossware and have policies on its use

In the US – where bossware use has become worryingly widespread – around 14% of employees in a recent survey didn’t know their boss was watching their every move (literally, in some cases).

If you absolutely must use bossware for some reason, make it very clear to your team why and when it’s going to be used.

When it is in place, make sure that team members entrusted with overseeing its use are governed by very clear policies.

3) Use it only when wrongdoing is suggested

Some employers use employee monitoring software only in situations where there is other evidence a team member is egregiously wasting company time.

Employing bossware when a performance review might be mandated anyway at least means you have actual justification for thinking your staff might not be working as you expect them to.

Staff monitoring software, bossware, and ethics

Some business leaders, horrified by the full capabilities of the employee monitoring software they’ve purchased, say they only use very limited subsets of its functionality.

Others, after experimenting with the software, found that good leadership practices like strong communication and relationship-building between team members worked just as well as “bossware”.

They also found they didn’t create the counterproductive effects that come from telling your team you don’t trust them to do their jobs unless monitored like children.

For some organisations, there might be some small limited-use cases where employee monitoring software might be useful. But for thoughtful, caring leaders, “bossware” is rarely going to be something that sits comfortably alongside their ethics.

Looking to make your remote working team more productive without restoring to “tattleware”?

Let’s talk. Dial A Geek already helped nearly 1000 businesses in Bristol and beyond get the best from their tech.

Set up a free, no-obligation chat with Chief Geek Gildas Jones today and talk through how the right setup can boost your business.