Keeping a close eye on the time

Employee self-monitoring software part of emerging productivity trend

In the workplace of 2015, Big Brother is less of a frightening literary construct and more of a day-to-day reality we hardly notice. 

Our emails can be monitored, our comings and goings might be captured on CCTV cameras — we may even swipe in and out of our office building, leaving behind a to-the-minute record of our quitting times. And any sketchy Googling may very well be subject to the scrutiny of our employers.

But what if the only person you had to answer to was… you?

In a way, that’s becoming something of a reality for some employees as organizations implement self-monitoring software. 

There are different options but the overall concept of self-monitoring software is employees are able to track their own time and productivity. This puts the monitoring — and responsibility — squarely on the employee’s shoulders, said Khiv Singh, assistant vice-president of sales (Americas) and marketing at Sapience Analytics in San Francisco.

“We live in an environment where work life and personal life are interconnected,” he said. “We are seeing a lot of time is getting spent on work and interacting with people but, at the end of the day, people still say, ‘I don’t know where my time went.’

“We are constantly getting distracted, we are unable to focus on work, and there are always notifications popping up — things that are competing for our attention.”

People aren’t able to keep tabs on why and how a five-minute activity becomes a 45-minute activity, without them even realizing it. This often leads to people feeling disengaged at work and that there’s never enough time, said Singh. 

We’re certainly busy, but are we actually being productive? It’s difficult to say without actually measuring, which is why Sapience created a background software application for employees to self-monitor their productivity, said Singh. The desktop application runs in the background, tracking how much time people spend on tasks such as marketing or meetings, with minimal data input. The main idea is to make people aware of where their time is going, he said. 

“Once it becomes visible, it’s measurable. And once it becomes measurable, employees and individuals can make their own decisions about whether this is a wise use of their time and what they can be doing to change how they spend their time — and reclaim their day.”

A trend is born?
Employee monitoring in general has been around for a while — but self-monitoring is, perhaps, a newer twist, said Laura Frangella, principal at Focused HR in Toronto. 

“It’s kind of like dieting — when you track it, then you do better on (your) diet,” she said. “It’s like a Fitbit for productivity.
“The premise is that they believe that a tool like this helps employees become more aware of how they’re spending their time.”

On the surface, there seems to be a long list of advantages to self-monitoring capabilities — especially in workplace environments where measurements and metrics have traditionally come from the management side instead of employees, said Jeff Welton, managing director at Verity International in Toronto. 

“(In those environments), having something where the individual can monitor himself would be very valuable,” he said. 

But it’s important that the monitoring itself be easy — not complex, frustrating or labour-intensive.

“It would have to be something very simple and it would have to be automated because I think the last thing anyone wants to do is to add yet another piece of work onto someone that takes them away from doing whatever their primary function is,” said Welton. 

Another challenge with self-monitoring is the potential — or perceived potential — for employers to sneak a peak, said Frangella. 

“Most of my clients have (software that is) dual — they’re not completely self-monitoring. But my challenge is the organization buys the software. They then have the ability — even if they sell it to the employees as ‘That’s the way it’s used, we’re not going to go in and invade your privacy’ — really, they can probably go in and look at whatever data they want,” she said. 

“I’m not saying all employers are going to do that, but in terms of if I was the employee... people could see it as a bit Big Brother-ish.”

Although it’s possible such software could be used in a negative way as a surveillance tool, it really depends how the organization uses it, said Frangella. 

“It depends on a lot of different factors — so, for example, the culture of the organization. Are they already an organization that currently has metrics around performance and goal-setting, so this would be just another piece, versus an organization that has absolutely nothing, and then all of a sudden comes in with this? It might not be taken so well,” she said. 

“(Used in combination) with other programs and incentives, I think it could work.”

HR, workforce benefits
To gain the most benefit from employee self-monitoring systems, employers would have to be careful not to create additional work or misunderstandings for employees, said Welton.  

“The key will come down to a very simplified automated system; very clear understanding and communication of expectations relative to productivity, so that the direct boss and the employee have an open dialogue about ‘Here’s what we expect from you,’” he said. 

In some cases, employees would likely need to input some data, which may or may not present an accurate picture of their day, said Frangella. 

“Sometimes, the feedback I’ve gotten from an employee perspective is that there is some (work) they can’t monitor, so it would need them to input data. So, for example, they’re in a meeting or they’re having a discussion with someone or (it’s) travelling time. I’m not sure of all the software out there that would pick that up or not pick it up, but how do you measure that?” she said. 

“Like any software program, it’s only as good as the information that’s being inputted. Can it capture the whole picture? I don’t know.”

Giving employees more control over their schedules or planning out their work is a definite positive, said Welton. 

“Anything you can put into the ownership of employees’ hands is always good. If they have ownership, if they believe in it, understand it, buy into it, and then own it, that’s a win-win,” he said. “Then, as a manager, you can just coach to things, as opposed to monitor things. It changes the dynamic, really.”

But it’s important to ensure employees understand the broader organizational goals and how the time they spend on day-to-day tasks can support those goals, said Frangella. 

“It has to be tied to the organizational goals and individual goals too. In other words, there has to be maybe some bigger goals to say, ‘OK, this is what your job entails.’ How you go about doing it, maybe the employee has control.”

Self-monitoring can also be very helpful for HR when it comes to hiring strategy, said Frangella. 

“That’s where I think it would be a really great benefit because you’re looking at HR planning, or analytics in terms of where everyone’s spending their time. And you could actually look at data now and say, ‘We’re spending so much time on this, so what’s the result of that?’ or ‘We need to hire.’”

With that hard data, it becomes easier to build the business case for hiring someone new or outsourcing an area or task, she said. 

“But then there’s the whole premise of how do you measure productivity?” said Frangella. 

With self-monitoring software, there is a strong focus on metrics, numbers and blocks of time, but that’s not the only thing productivity is about. 

“Sometimes, productivity is also linked to employee engagement... are they being developed? Are they being heard? This is just one aspect. I don’t think it’s the be-all, end-all,” said Frangella.

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