In a modern business environment where remote workers and independent contractors are becoming more common parts of a company's day-to-day operations, it's important to be able to confirm that a worker is really doing what they are supposed to be doing. In the past, it was as simple as assigning a manager to keep tabs and organize workers in the office, but today many workers are scattered across the globe.
So how can you be sure you aren't being falsely billed? How do you protect sensitive company data or track employee productivity? The answer is employee monitoring software, which can track everything from how many minutes your worker was inactive to every last keystroke typed and in what applications. Employee monitoring software can also automatically notify you of any policy violations or problematic behavior.
If you're considering using employee monitoring software, there are a few things to understand first. This buyer's guide will help get you started on your decision-making journey and steer you toward some of the best employee monitoring software on the market today.
What is employee monitoring software?
Employee monitoring software provides administrators with a set of tools and features that track and record employee behavior on the clock. This includes which websites employees access, what messages they send, which programs they use and the files they open. The purpose of employee monitoring is two-fold: 1) to ensure company policies and rules are not violated, and 2) to guarantee employee productivity and accountability.
Employee monitoring software is typically sold on a per-user, per-month pricing model, although sometimes these prices are expressed in terms of annual subscriptions. Many employee monitoring software solutions require a minimum number of users, which is typically five but can also be significantly higher depending on the company.
How to choose employee monitoring software
When choosing employee monitoring software, you'll want to understand which features are available and which ones you really need. A solution with all the features under the sun, for example, is typically going to cost more and have a steeper learning curve than a solution that offers fewer tools.
You'll want to strike a balance between comprehensiveness and effectiveness as well as affordability if you're on a tight budget. Some of the features to consider include:
- Webpage monitoring: Webpage monitoring logs the websites a user is visiting, usually including the date and time the webpage was accessed. You can often set banned or potentially problematic websites and website categories. The best employee monitoring software flag these instances and alert the administrator when these sites are accessed. If a user continuously visits these flagged sites, it will become clear they are repeatedly accessing non-work-related or prohibited content on company time.
- Application monitoring: Application monitoring works much the same way as webpage monitoring, except with software. If a user is gaming on company time, for example, or running programs that are not related to work, an admin can see the dates and times the programs were accessed and for how long. Some software also provides screenshots or recordings of such activity.
- Live chat monitoring: Live chat monitoring generally tracks live chat conversations across a number of platforms, including messengers and social media. Dated and timestamped conversations show where the chat took place, whom it took place between and the content of the chat.
- Email monitoring: Email monitoring works similarly to live chat monitoring, except across major email platforms. Any attachments are typically recreated and can be viewed by administrators.
- Removable device monitoring: Removable devices can be a serious concern when it comes to protecting sensitive company data. With many employee monitoring solutions, admins can review when any removable devices were attached and what files were downloaded and/or uploaded.
- Keystroke logging: Keystroke logging tracks every key a user hits during a session across every program. Dated and timestamped logs appear along with a reference as to what application was used and the file or browser the keystrokes occurred within.
- Screenshots: Many employee monitoring software solutions include periodic screenshots that give administrators a literal window into employee activity at a given time. Some software solutions record video snippets, so administrators can review exactly what a user was doing at any point.
- Webcam access: Some employee monitoring software includes remote access to a user's webcam. Admins can switch on user webcams to see if the employee is at the device.
- Reporting options: Each employee monitoring software solution handles reporting somewhat differently. The best software allows you to create custom reports that generate a simple visual based on your preferences. Some software applications will create reports that compare employee activity and inactivity time to productive work and unproductive work.
You'll also want to consider the company's track record for tech support and customer service in case you ever run into an issue that requires their help. A responsive company is an extremely useful asset, especially for a small business without a dedicated IT department.
Will my employees know they're being watched?
Most employee monitoring software vendors understand your employees might behave differently if they know monitoring software is installed on their computer. In order to get an accurate representation of how your employees behave when they believe no one is watching, employee monitoring software can typically be configured into stealth mode. In stealth mode, users aren't aware that software is actively tracking and storing their behavior and that it is subject to administrative review.
But what if you employ freelancers who use their own devices? Certainly, running stealth employee monitoring software is potentially problematic. For freelancers, employee monitoring software often comes with a mode that is visible to the user and only active when they clock in to track time for your project. The rest of the time it is off, meaning freelance users can freely utilize their device without fear of being watched, but you can still monitor their activity when they are accumulating compensation from you. Employers can also use this visible mode with full-time employees if they want their workers to know that their behavior is being tracked.
In short, it's usually up to you as to how you prefer to configure the software. If you want to hide it, install and run agents in stealth mode. If you want it visible, you typically have that option as well. However, it never hurts to double-check with the vendor that these features are indeed available.
Data privacy obligations
Depending on how you implement employee monitoring software, you might be taking on additional data privacy obligations. As data privacy laws like the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) in the European Union and the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA) become more popular, likewise, the risks associated with mishandling sensitive user information increase as well.
The same could be true for employee data, the disclosure of which could run afoul of federal privacy laws like HIPAA. Understanding the legal and ethical risks of utilizing employee monitoring software is essential. It's wise to consult with an attorney about the implications of collecting potentially sensitive employee data as part of any employee monitoring policy.
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