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Firms step up employee monitoring at work

More companies are installing productivity-monitoring software on their employees’ computers to figure out how they spend their time.Wesley Bedrosian for The Boston Globe

A decade ago, companies that wanted to track workers’ activities could quietly count employees’ computer keystrokes, record the websites they visited, and read their e-mail. But as technology improves, and digital distractions multiply, employee monitoring is rising to new and more sophisticated levels.

Companies are now breaking down the time workers spend creating reports and downloading files, and watching to see if someone is scrolling through Facebook or just has it open in the background. Some programs send managers an alert when certain keywords — say, “vacation rentals” — are searched. If a worker logs out early, or switches from working in Excel to shopping for shoes, the boss can tell.


Despite objections that such monitoring amounts to spying, the practice is becoming widespread. The roughly $200 million monitoring industry is expected to more than double to $500 million in the next four years, according to 451 Research, a New York information technology research firm.

The president of a New York audio-visual design firm grew so concerned about employees wasting time that he started looking at monthly IT reports that showed excessive time spent on sites unrelated to work, such as YouTube. “You walk by [a computer screen], you see the window close,” said Orin Knopp, president of Presentation Products Inc. “They think they’re getting one over on you.”

He also installed monitoring tools for off-site employees that detects mouse and keyboard activity. Once employees knew they were being watched, he said, they became more efficient.

Employers have broad legal latitude to track what workers do on company systems, and most states don’t require employers to notify employees if they are watching — although a billpending in the Massachusetts Legislature would compel employers to do so.

Security concerns are largely driving the growth of the monitoring industry, but improving productivity is also a draw. With a steady stream of social media posts and breaking news updates only a click away, staying focused on work duties is more difficult than ever.


Other major time wasters: fantasy sports and cat videos. One company that started monitoring workers’ computers discovered they spent 80 hours watching feline hijinks in a single month, said New York human resources consultant Corinne Jones.

“Labor is your number one expense,” Jones said, “so being able to manage that expense and asset is incredibly valuable.”

Surveillance systems are frequently categorized as “time management” or “productivity monitoring” and marketed as a way to make workers more efficient. But the technology is also raising concerns about where efforts to improve productivity end and spying begins.

At the very least, some analysts say, watching workers’ every move can damage trust and erode morale.

“It’s like being the ultimate micromanager,” said Scott Simpson, a partner at Cambria Consulting Inc. in Boston. “And no one likes to be micromanaged.”

Still, some employers swear by it, noting that monitoring workers gives them the ability to identify the habits of top performers, as well as those who are struggling. Today’s technology not only allows employers to collect data on workers’ activities, but also quickly analyze it to pinpoint abnormal behavior — whether it’s a security breach or a drop in productivity.

Companies find monitoring software especially helpful in overseeing the rising number of employees who work remotely, sometimes in other countries.

Rishabh Bahl, cofounder of TechWiss, at his office.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/Globe Staff

TechWiss Inc., a Lowell e-health startup with a workforce of 55 on three continents, used performance monitoring software to track the actions of a coder in India who kept missing deadlines for an app under development. Instead of firing him, the company analyzed his data.


It found that the worker wasn’t participating in online chats with other team members, meaning he wasn’t collaborating properly. And his coding suffered as a result.

After a week of training, his performance improved dramatically, said Rishabh Bahl, cofounder of TechWiss.

“You can’t manage by walking around anymore,” said Mike Tierney, chief operating officer of SpectorSoft Corp. in Vero Beach, Fla., which sells employee monitoring software. “So people are seeking ways of making sure that their folks are staying on task”

But that doesn’t mean workers are OK with what can feel like being watched by Big Brother, whether its to track workflow or something more serious.

In 2010, a Falmouth firefighter sued the town over private e-mails that were reviewed by police during a sexual harassment investigation. A Massachusetts Superior Court judge ruled against the firefighter, saying he had no expectation of privacy on the town’s e-mail system.

The next year, the New York Times reported that the Food and Drug Administration had tracked e-mails between scientists — whom the agency suspected of leaking confidential information — and members of Congress, journalists, and lawyers. The software tracked the scientists’ messages line-by-line as they were being written.

Employers contend that when workers are made aware of how they spend their time, they use it more wisely.


Sapience Analytics, a workforce data firm in California and India, introduced a product last year that displays employees’ activities in a window visible to workers as well as bosses. One client that used the product, an IT services company with more than 5,000 employees, reported a 90-minute daily increase per person in “core activities” — coding for a developer as opposed to answering e-mails — after being made aware of their work patterns, said spokesman Khiv Singh.

The company also used the data to analyze how busy each team was and redistributed the workload accordingly. The company reported a $2 million annual profit increase, said.

“It’s not for policing,” he said. “It’s for mentoring.”

That’s the way RescueTime sees it, too. The Seattle company sells software that can designate certain applications and websites as productive, such as Microsoft Word, and others, such as BuzzFeed, as distracting.

How long people spend on any given site is calculated into a productivity score, from a perfect 100 to a “Netflix binge” of zero, said Robby Macdonell, head of product development at RescueTime.

But knowing your boss is on your back doesn’t make people work more efficiently, it makes them more stressed, said Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, a Princeton, N.J. nonprofit focused on employment rights.

And the more bosses know what workers do every minute of the day, he said, the more likely they are to push employees past the breaking point.


“People aren’t machines,” he said. “If we can’t stop to catch our breath occasionally, we break down.”

Katie Johnston can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.