Bosses have always wanted to keep tabs on their employees, but technology is allowing them to track workers' time and whereabouts in increasingly thorough ways.
While factories once relied on punch cards to know when employees showed up and clocked out, companies are now branching out into everything from keyword tracking to monitoring what applications workers are using on their computers. About two-thirds of companies now use some type of electronic monitoring, according to the National Workrights Institute.
The growth in new monitoring products comes at a time when bosses have two issues on their mind: making sure their employees remain productive in a world filled with constant distraction (YouTube videos, anyone?) and to keep an eye out for security problems. The intersection of technology with employers' concerns and workers' freedoms can lead to some uncomfortable situations, however, such as a lawsuit filed last year by a California worker who claimed her former boss installed a GPS app on her phone that tracked her 24/7.
Proponents of the monitoring programs say they aren't all bad. Some are meant to help employees figure out how best to use their time, which is the goal of Sapience Analytics. Its program shows how workers are using their time on "core activities," such as whether a salesman is spending most of his time in sales meetings, or on non-related activities.
"There have been creepy monitoring tools, either deployed in a silent mode, where employees aren't even aware of their tracking, such as keystroke monitoring," said Khiv Singh, vice president and head of marketing at Sapience. He noted that those programs can create a backlash with employees while failing to address the core issue that employers want to answer: whether their workers are using their time wisely.
Sapience's program tracks application usage, rather than keystrokes, which means a boss can't see if a worker is sending work-related or personal emails, for example. But the program can provide a general sense of how employees are using their time and if they're meeting their goals for spending, say, one-third of their hours in sales-related efforts.
"I can go back to my managers and say, 'Look at the trend.' Or if we are okay with the trend," he said. "It helps you change the conversation by being backed by data."
Singh's point echoes a major shift in how workers themselves are using technology to make the most of their hours. Time-tracking apps such as Eternity and productivity programs such as the Pomodoro method -- which encourages people to work for 25-minute blocks of time -- have gained legions of fans among workers seeking to cut down on time-sucking activities and make the most of their hours.
But when the boss installs a tracking program, employees are often left with an uneasy feeling -- and many questions. Some employers are extending tracking beyond the workplace by monitoring employees' social media posts, leading to a number of cases of workers who ended up fired after sending questionable tweets or Facebook messages. One new service called RescueTime sells software that tracks some programs as useful while other sites -- such as Buzzfeed -- are tracked as time-wasters, according to the Boston Globe.
"It's like being the ultimate micromanager," Cambria Consulting partner Scott Simpson told the publication. "And no one likes to be micromanaged."