Navigating the sticky issue of monitoring employee productivity

by Joseph K. Clark

If it has not happened already, at some point, a CIO is likely to be asked about office productivity. With people returning to offices and businesses opening up the possibility of flexible working, the concept of working long office hours and “being seen”, along with other pre-Covid work habits, are being reset. Nevertheless, many organizations have people in managerial roles who may feel it necessary to understand how people work and whether this differs from when they are in the office or when they are at home.

employee productivity

According to business consultancy Grand View Research, the global productivity management software market is expected to reach a value of nearly $103bn by 2027, primarily driven by “growing demand for workforce management among several businesses, coupled with the need for communication and collaboration between remote workers”.

It adds that recent developments in artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), which “are used to make an in-depth analysis of the data, transform it into actionable insights, and maximize the organization’s productivity”, have significantly affected the market’s trajectory too.

With enterprise use of productivity monitoring software on the rise and many predicting a rapid expansion of the market in coming years, how and why are organizations monitoring employees’ activities, and what are the benefits it can bring?

A study conducted last year by analyst Gartner found that employees may be comfortable with collecting data to measure productivity but not comfortable with how that data might be used.

Productivity monitoring capabilities

The digital productivity monitoring tools available today have a wide range of capabilities, from allowing employers to record employees’ keystrokes and mouse clicks to tracking their physical location and use of applications or websites.

Depending on which software provider is chosen, enterprises may also be able to receive intermittent screenshots from employees’ computer screens throughout the day and oversight of their work documents, calendar appointments, and email correspondence.

For instance, enterprises using software from Florida-based user activity monitoring (UAM) provider Teramind will be able to track, among other things, their employees’ keystrokes, file transfers, what’s on their screens through optical character recognition (OCR), their audio inputs, their network, and the time spent on tasks, as well as in websites and applications.

By tracking these metrics and a variety of others, enterprises can use the software to conduct predictive and behavioral analysis, enabling managers to understand how productive employees are over time.

California-based productivity monitoring software provider Prodoscore similarly uses ML, AI, and natural language processing (NLP) to capture and analyze thousands of daily activities across business applications such as office suites, as well as customer relationship management (CRM) and unified-communications-as-a-service (UCaaS) tools.

“Our complex machine learning algorithms output a single score, making it easy to digest opportunities quickly and mitigating the need to sift through multiple reports in disparate systems. The score is supported by quantitative, qualitative, and behavioral information that is collected seamlessly to ensure workflow is not interrupted,” says Prodoscore’s chief strategy officer, Tom Moran.

Enhanced visibility over a distributed workforce

Prodoscore and Teramind say the more distributed nature of work under Covid-19 is a significant factor in why enterprises are starting to adopt their tools.

According to Eli Sutton, vice-president of global operations at Teramind, the company’s “hybrid monitoring solution” gives its clients the ability to optimize workforce productivity and mitigate the risk of any data leaks or breaches occurring that could cause financial or reputational damage.

“When we first came up with Teramind, we initially thought it’d be more professional-style businesses like accounting, law, legal or banking that would really be attracted to this type of software, but we found that any organization where employees essentially work out of an endpoint like a desktop, laptop, Windows server or terminal server can derive benefit,” he says, adding the firm has witnessed a threefold increase in its usual business almost overnight as a result of Covid-19. “Since the pandemic started, we’ve seen the bulk of incoming clients trying to measure and then increase productivity.”

Eli Sutton, Teramind

“Since the pandemic started, we’ve seen the bulk of incoming clients trying to measure and then increase productivity,” he says. The acceleration of digital transformation through cloud-based applications – another product of the move to remote working during the pandemic – has also been a significant driver of monitoring software adoption, according to Prodoscore’s Moran, who says organizations now have a need to surface relevant employee data from their new integrations and more agile working environments.

“Many teams are now distributed across offices, time zones, and geographic regions. There are no simple means for leadership to feel confident about outcomes and no easy way for employees to demonstrate it without disruptions to their day,” he says.

Moran adds that the productivity data collected has several benefits to enterprises – it “can be used to better predict achievement of outcomes, enhance coaching, strengthen cloud tool adoption, improve employee retention and streamline the employee experience overall”.

Like Teramind, Prodoscore has witnessed massive growth in its sales since the start of the pandemic, with The Sunday Times reporting a sixfold increase.

Why and how monitoring software is used

According to an October 2020 report from Gartner’s human resources practitioner team, enterprises are implementing employee productivity monitoring technologies to ensure work is getting done as expected, detect where employees are facing challenges so support can be provided, and notice opportunities to improve processes or technologies to increase overall productivity.

More specifically, Hayfa Mohdzaini, a senior research adviser on data, technology, and AI at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), says organizations are using productivity monitoring technology to log attendance, track working time, and ensure compliance and security, with the data collecting being used to flag any issues related to these areas.

“For staff paid hourly, the data could be used to determine the hours worked while giving staff flexibility over when they work,” she says. “For other staff, the data could be used as a starting point for discussing attendance and productivity concerns and used as evidence to justify rewarding high-performing staff. The data could also be helpful to assess the performance of new joiners on probation.”

Mohdzaini adds that, as enterprises move into hybrid physical-virtual work environments when Covid subsides, the technology will also enable organizations to track “attendance and working time remotely without a line manager on-site”.

According to Duncan Casemore, chief technology officer and co-founder of HR technology firm Applaud, many businesses at the start of the pandemic were quick to introduce various technologies to solve issues arising from the shift to remote working.

“The rapid change to remote working meant that many employers did not have the tools in place to effectively manage and communicate with remote workers. For some, the knee-jerk reaction was to monitor employee activity rather than actual output,” he says.

“Broadly speaking, employees and managers have had negative reactions to the idea of being tracked. Any organization that chooses to implement tracking will have to do it with transparency, in line with their country or state-wide data protection laws such as GDPR [the General Data Protection Regulation] or CCPA [the California Consumer Privacy Act], and with an employee-first mentality,” says Casemore.

Best practice

To get the most out of the software and effectively increase productivity, big four audit firm PwC says organizations need to better understand the activities their employees engage in each day, supported by quantitative data.

“Few institutions are looking comprehensively at the nature of work, the activities that different employees perform, and how individuals can improve their productivity through new ways of working and the development of digital skills. In our view, gaining a better understanding of the workforce represents a major cost reduction opportunity for the industry,” it says in a September 2020 report on productivity in financial services.

PwC recommends starting with a detailed time study of a small segment of the workforce. This can be used to identify top performers and laggards, improve work organization, and identify specific actions to increase productivity and engagement.

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