For Better or Worse, Productivity Tracking is on the Rise in the Workplace

By:  Emma Johnston

As the New York Times recently reported[i], employers have rapidly started using software and other technologies that aim to track employees’ productivity.  The idea is straightforward: employers require their employees to install programs on their computers that closely monitor various metrics tied, in theory, to productivity.  For example, one company[ii] selling productivity tracking software explains that its product uses “multiple methods to confirm if the time tracked was real work,” including “screenshots taken at regular intervals, levels of keyboard & mouse activity, and which websites & applications are used.”

Unsurprisingly, employees and employers are taking vastly different stances to the effectiveness of this type of productivity tracking.  On their side of the equation, employees are understandably concerned about productivity tracking as not only an unwarranted and extreme invasion of privacy[iii], but also a flawed method for assessing their actual productivity.  As an example, one employee interviewed by the New York Times explained that the tracking software used by her company failed to account for any offline activities that, under normal circumstances, would obviously be considered productive—like problem solving or brainstorming ideas on paper, working through issues with a colleague on the phone, reading an applicable article or journal, or even plain old thinking.  In short, employees feel disgruntled by productivity tracking software’s invasion into their privacy, the lack of trust their employers have in them, and ineffectiveness of the software’s ability to determine true productivity.

Conversely, productivity tracking software seems like an overt win for many employers.  To be sure, such software gives employers unprecedented access to quantitative data on what, exactly, their employees are doing every day.  It also helps root out employees doing little work and, if applied equally to all employees, allows for employee success to be measured more objectively.  These positives may be particularly beneficial to employers who, by virtue of the near ubiquitous presence of remote work, cannot have the same eyes and ears on employees that they have in the past.

But employers using or considering using productivity tracking software likely need to grapple with the business risks such software poses.  Of course, the strongest risk may very well be the employee pushback and concern discussed above.  In the age of an unprecedented shift in power from employers to employees[iv]–culminating most notably in the “Great Resignation” that saw “[s]cores of people change[] jobs in search of higher pay, better working conditions and career development opportunities”[v]—employers should think twice about introducing policies or practices loathed by their employees.

However, even employers who weigh the risk of this potential employee dissatisfaction and decide the risk is either inapplicable or surmountable, employers should consider whether productivity tracking software will actually help them achieve what they want it to: measuring their employees’ productivity and, accordingly, their benefit to their employer.  Productivity tracking software assumes that each employee’s time should and can be valued equally—i.e., that an hour of Employee Bob’s time is equivalent to an hour of Employee John’s time, such that Bob’s hour and John’s hour are equally productive.  In some workplaces, that may very well be true, in which case the employer could reasonably decide that productivity tracking is a useful means of measuring Bob and John’s respective success.  However, in many fields and at many companies, employees cannot be evaluated in such an objective and identical way.  Indeed, some employees may be able to achieve much more in fewer hours than their counterparts or may be able to produce work of much higher quality in the same amount of time it takes their counterparts to produce lesser quality work.

An anecdotal but illustrative example of this time-versus-productivity disparity came up in a recent advice column.[vi]  A employee wrote in and explained that she is “the absolute star” of her department and “has brought in more revenue than the rest of my 30-person department combined.”  But she said this high-achieving status is in spite of the fact that she is “only engaging in the work a few hours each day” and that, if she “tried to spend eight hours a day being productive, [she] would really have to hunt down additional work to do.”  While this employee was not subject to productivity tracking, imagine if she were: It’s very possible she would be subject to admonishment for the hours she spends not being “productive,” even though her actual output goes above and beyond her colleagues’.  (It is worth noting that this employee’s productivity may very well be on par with most Americans—some research estimates that, on average, employees are productive for as little as approximately three[vii] or five[viii] hours a day.)

In short, before implementing productivity tracking software or similar tools, employers should think critically not only about employee response and potential attrition but also about (1) how they want to effectively measure employee success and (2) how they want to uniquely define and measure productivity to suit their workplace and culture.  Even when those considerations weigh in favor of productivity tracking, the most measured approach is likelto use it as a tool in measuring employee success and outcome, not as the sole method for doing so.  After all, software cannot replace effective and involved management, employee engagement, or a healthy workplace culture.