July 15, 2020

The Best Employee Monitoring Software

By Raman kumar

Employee monitoring tends to generate negative images of intrusive bosses peering into employees’ time and in-office or online activities. This has surfaced as an even bigger topic of debate during the time of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the need for remote work and social distancing. While some states are opening up and the gears of the economy and commerce are starting to grind back to life, millions of workers have made offices of their homes and this isn’t expected to change for the foreseeable future. Employees are still expected to work, but now they have the added struggle of homeschooling kids and taking on manifold tasks just to get by in their day to day lives. Where does that leave employee tracking? Now that most workers are no longer within company property, even if they’re working on company time, the lines continue to blur. There are outstanding arguments around the value of employee’s time and effort, and this new work from home reality has made this even more evident.

Managers now have a harder time determining and tracking their employees’ productivity specially now that distributed workforces mean more flexible and non-uniform work hours. Employee engagement and focus on work may no longer be the most viable objectives for performance evaluations. Pandemics, after all, have a way of turning things on their head. Teams, however, still need to work towards common goals, and managers are expected to afford employees some leniency on defining how best to get their work done. With that in mind, the importance of organizational tools and systems becomes even more critical for distributed teams working outside of established office structures. How can these tools serve as helpful human resources (HR) solutions in these unprecedented times?

When larger employers hire new workers, they need to find a way to ensure that the employee is getting the supervision, training, and support they need out of the gate. That’s enough of a challenge that market research firm, Statista, identified it at the top of a list of challenges that surveyed HR professionals associated with onboarding. While that’s slightly outside-the-box thinking for employee monitoring technology, it clearly shows there’s flexibility when it comes to using these solutions. While that’s something to keep in mind when reading our reviews of these services, we did decide to focus our testing on the category’s core mission: maximizing worker productivity. These products are designed to ensure that businesses are getting the productivity they expect out of employees. They also help enforce data security policies and protocols.

Particularly for large corporations that schedule thousands of shift workers in settings such as call centers, for instance, employee monitoring agents installed on company machines give these businesses complete visibility and traceability into their operations. The employee monitoring agents also aggregate key data on employee productivity. For organizations such as government contractors or businesses that deal with sensitive financial, medical, or other personal customer data, ensuring compliance rules while keeping an eye on employees can be even more critical. So, if you are looking for comprehensive employee monitoring tools that offer a Big Brother-level of omnipresent oversight or if simply want Google Analytics (GA) to track office productivity metrics and improve efficiency, there is a range of employee monitoring tools available to fit your particular needs.

Top Onboarding Challenges

Market research chart from Statista showing the Top Onboarding Challenges of 2018(Image Courtesy of Statista)

What is Employee Monitoring Software?

Employee monitoring goes beyond the core time tracking functionality of tracking clock-ins and clock–outs or managing schedules and workloads. The software reviewed in this roundup ranges from time tracking players that add nifty monitoring features such as keystroke logging, location tracking, and screenshots to full-blown draconian monitoring platforms. Designed to manage a large scale workforce, some of these solutions focus more on tracking activity on seats rather than on specific individuals, but this does nothing to diminish the heavy handedness that some of these applications are perceived to have.

On the lighter, less dystopian end of the spectrum, many employee monitoring tools are focused on tracking productivity. A task that’s now more challenging than ever since remote workers are juggling their nine-to-five jobs with half a dozen other personal tasks ranging from minding their homeschooled children, providing family meals, and running households for sheltering-in-place family members. Work from home challenges the pre-existing structure for productivity tracking, so many of these solutions will require rejigging or substantial pivoting to continue to be effective for today’s needs and individual use cases.

Administrators can sort applications into productive and unproductive app groups to break down productiveness across different teams, departments, or individual employees. It’s important to have customization and user grouping here because an app that’s deemed productive for one job function may be considered unproductive for another. For instance, social media managers spending all of their time on Facebook and Twitter is core to their role whereas a sales manager spending many hours a day on Reddit should throw up a red flag.

This activity data can also be aggregated on a macro level in real-time admin and manager dashboards as well as in detailed reports, slicing and dicing productivity metrics. You can drill down into the data using factors such as the most productive or unproductive employees, or compare team or departmental efficiency or productivity on specific projects. Often, employee monitoring tools will give you at-a-glance data visualizations such as a productivity bar that breaks down productive and unproductive app percentages, or lists and leader boards that show active or inactive users or the most often used apps.

The other side of activity tracking is monitoring keystrokes. Logging keystrokes is essentially a baseline for employee activity. Once you have granular data on how often employees are typing or interacting with their machine, it can be mapped against corresponding screenshots, activity logs, audit trails, and all of the deeper monitoring vectors we get into later to fill out a complete profile of employees’ online activity. Some of the most powerful monitoring software we’ve tested can intake raw keystroke data—meaning, a timestamped mapping of what system keys users pressed at any given time—and cross-reference that against any of the other metrics or captured activity data collected. As a result, you can see the full context of what employees were doing, when they were doing it, and a good indication as to why they were doing it.

Concept image of a large blue eye

The All-Seeing Eye

Once an incognito agent is installed on a machine (sometimes hidden in the Running Processes list under disguised names), the most powerful employee monitoring tools can act as an all-seeing eye. It can see into everything from what apps an employee has open to with whom they’re chatting to, what they’re saying. It can even use automated logic such as keyword triggers and policy rules to let an admin know when employees do something they’re not supposed to do. Thanks to advanced automation, software can now set various alerts and triggers to find patterns and compile employee transgressions into reports that can later be used to build disciplinary cases against employees.

This all starts with screenshots and customizable employee screen recording options. Depending on the employee monitoring tool, company admins can configure rules and settings to take screenshots at particular intervals, either once per hour, every 15 minutes, or even every 10 seconds or less. Some tools also support live screenshots or continuous video recording where an admin can check in live on an employee’s machine or pull up the timestamped recording of a particular period of time. Some tools let you play, pause, or download screenshots. Most importantly, stored screenshots also carry metadata and can be incorporated throughout the monitoring dashboard to be pulled up as supporting evidence or supplementary data for whatever user activity or data point an admin is reviewing or investigating. Some products also offer an alias feature that lets you change the name of the user in the reports you create. You can also use the same alias for multiple machines. The list of features is comprehensive and growing specially now that employees may use multiple devices to get their work done. The challenge still remains on the human end of the process, managers only have so many hours to pore through hundreds if not thousands of screenshots throughout an employees workday.

Beyond the images themselves, these monitoring platforms can have a startling degree of detailed visibility into every app, file, message, and even word or piece of data that appears across an employee’s screen or within their system. Some of the most advanced enterprise monitoring solutions offer optical character recognition (OCR) on a user’s screen to perform session mining on particular keywords. Whether by OCR or by enabling support for monitoring specific desktop or web apps regularly used by employees, the most piercing employee monitoring tool will parse email messages, chats, instant messages (IMs), and other personal or team communication apps. They’ll monitor whatever parameters or even specific keywords an admin has set.

This applies to tracking documents and scanning file names as well. The software will often capture the attached document or file so an admin can view it. So, if an enterprise’s C-suite executives want to know whether employees are chatting internally about the company’s CEO or CTO, they could simply set up automated keyword triggers to receive an email alert or have all mentions aggregated into a report. This rules-based automation can be extended to a variety of parameters or user behaviors if a company so wishes. For instance, rules can be set to prevent employees from sending company data through personal channels or from downloading an app or file that isn’t IT-approved. Not all platforms can go this deep into automation. However, the ones that can will either trigger user notifications to stop the action, or simply send an alert or update an audit log to quantify how particular user actions or behavior factor into overall risk reports or issues. This potentially can result in managerial intervention being required.

This all speaks to a more fundamental question: Is your business investing in an employee monitoring tool primarily to improve productivity and efficiency? Or do you truly want or need full oversight into everything employees are doing and saying on company time and machines, to a meticulous degree of detail? Depending on your organizational needs and what value you’re looking to gain from implementing this kind of solution, your choice of employee monitoring tool and the ways they can be applied could be vastly different.

Concept image of people being managed

Who Sells Employee Monitoring Solutions?

In this roundup, we tested 10 products: ActivTrak, Desktime Pro, Hubstaff, InterGuard, StaffCop Enterprise, Time Doctor, Teramind, Veriato 360, VeriClock, and Work Examiner. The range of software we tested varied from basic time trackers that offer some added employee monitoring to full-blown, data-driven digital surveillance systems. For example, Hubstaff, Time Doctor, and VeriClock are pure-play time tracking tools that offer some deeper employee monitoring features. These products give you great core time-tracking features plus features such as mobile GPS tracking for workers in the field. They also give you attached notes and photos, screenshots, or basic monitoring of apps used and URLs visited.

These tools offer website and app monitoring features plus screenshots, keystroke and file tracking, and board admin customizations including proactive alerts. Note that these capabilities are centered around improving productivity rather than policing employee activity. Data is funneled into reports and dashboards that can monitor and aggregate productivity metrics as well as a fair amount of insights-driven business reporting. This is the “GA for your office” tier.

Finally, there are the platforms that feel almost omniscient in the depth of monitoring, automation, and comprehensive data they provide. These platforms include InterGuard, Staffcop Enterprise, Teramind, and Veriato 360. These tools are the closest to invasive Big Brother-like internal surveillance systems, depending on how deeply an admin wants to customize what data and monitoring vectors are being tracked for each employee, or how much automation and alerting to layer on top. On top of their far-reaching and scarily precise monitoring capabilities, this tier of tools also provide what is essentially full-blown business intelligence (BI) reporting and data analytics on the back end to process and analyze all of the employee data being collected.

Concept image of a large pile of cash

Pricing and Licensing

Pricing varies for all of these tools. But most employee monitoring tools set their price by the number of users or endpoints, meaning the number of employees for which agents are installed on their machines. Costs tend to scale based on user capacity and volume discounts kick in for larger organizations. However, tools such as InterGuard and Veriato 360 also offer additional add-on modules for premium functionality. If you’re looking for software you can buy outright rather than via a monthly or annual subscription, then both StaffCop Enterprise and Work Examiner offer perpetual licenses per user, though this involves on-premises versus cloud-based installation.

Ultimately, the Editors’ Choice awards for the products tested in this roundup went to Teramind for enterprise-level monitoring and to ActivTrak for productivity-focused monitoring that’s better suited to small to midsize businesses (SMBs). While InterGuard and Veriato 360 have comparably vast feature sets and monitoring capabilities, Teramind stands alone in the level of automation admins can configure when it comes to user-specific rules and alerts, and additional advanced functionality such as live OCR, historic playback mode, remote desktop control, and audio support for microphone and headphone monitoring in call centers. StaffCop Enterprise packs a selection of monitoring tools and automation features to match Teramind, but their value is lessened by a painstaking on-premises setup and virtual machine (VM) provisioning process as opposed to Teramind’s seamless installation.

Teramind also provides a more intuitive, cloud-based management user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) than either InterGuard or Veriato 360. Teramind was also one of the easiest tools we tested to install agents, configure the admin dashboard, and get up and running fast without much hassle. ActivTrak, on the other hand, is an ideal option for SMBs or even enterprises that don’t need the full-blown Big Brother oversight of Teramind and want an easy-to-use platform for tracking employee productivity and efficiency metrics. It’s a “Google Analytics for your office” and the best of the productivity-focused tier of monitoring products we reviewed. It is also worth noting that for the time tracking products reviewed in this roundup, we did not change the existing ratings or awards. So, while VeriClock is rated as a 4.5-rated Editors’ Choice for time tracking, it is not an Editors’ Choice product for the employee monitoring category.

Have any questions about how to approach employee monitoring? Subscribe to the PCMag.com Small Business Update newsletter and join the [email protected] discussion group on LinkedIn. There you can meet and query vendors, other professionals like yourself, and PCMag’s editors.