Employee monitoring vs. productivity monitoring: what’s the difference?

Viesturs Abelis 22.01.2024
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Following the widespread adoption of remote and hybrid work, monitoring software in the workplace is also becoming ubiquitous. A recent ExpressVPN survey found that 3 in 4 employers monitor employee work, of which more than half implemented it in the last six months. 

For employers, it’s a way to maintain some level of control in an increasingly digital and hybrid world. Workplace monitoring tools like DeskTime can help with accountability, project cost calculations, and more. Meanwhile, employees enjoy the same benefits, as well as heightened personal productivity and a better understanding of their workflows.

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That said, many workers find monitoring unsettling, viewing it as invasive surveillance, often dubbing it counterproductive since it encourages busy work over value-added work. Plus, some are worried that it dehumanizes workers, reducing them to productivity statistics that fail to paint a complete picture of their professional input. These are valid concerns and reasons why employees might resist the introduction of such tools. 

two men and two women pointing at computer screen

But as with most things in life, workplace monitoring isn’t black-or-white. Rather it’s a spectrum – there are different types, gradations, and philosophies of monitoring. 

While one boss might spy on correspondence, evaluate performance purely by the numbers, and use monitoring software to micromanage individuals, another might use it only for tracking attendance, overall productivity, and project expenses without intruding on employee privacy in any meaningful way. 

How monitoring software is used depends on who’s managing it and how. 

Plus, there are critical differences between tools. Some are designed to monitor employee productivity. Others are created to monitor the employees themselves. 

Let’s explore the difference between employee monitoring and productivity monitoring to get a better grasp of different monitoring approaches and tools. 

What is employee monitoring?

Employee monitoring is focused on the individual. It’s when employers make use of monitoring tools to keep track of behavior and output while collecting personal data for evaluation purposes. 

Employee monitoring goes beyond simply tracking productivity and may include behavior monitoring through the use of various HRtech tools, surveys, and methods. 

Its purpose is to gain a comprehensive and objective insight into the performance of an employee, as well as observe their motivation, satisfaction, and even loyalty to the company. 

Another common reason for employee monitoring is enhanced security, namely, when workers operate with highly sensitive information, employers may opt to monitor their activities to prevent misconduct. 

Manager watching over employee's shoulder

For example, industries such as finance and healthcare, where data security is paramount, may find extensive employee monitoring crucial for ensuring operational safety and adherence to stringent data protection regulations. 

On the other hand, employees of less-regulated industries may be more resistant to employee monitoring, as they typically do not operate with highly sensitive information. Indeed, while employee monitoring is legal in the U.S., Europe, and many other countries, employees typically dislike any encroachment on their privacy.

For this reason, clear communication with the workforce is critical to keep dissatisfaction to a minimum and avoid it bubbling over into an issue people are willing to quit over. In this regard, management should proactively appease the employees’ main worries by assuring that:

  • Data will not be evaluated out of context,
  • Within reason, they will not intrude on private communications,
  • Personal information obtained through monitoring will be properly protected. 

And, of course, address any other worries that may arise. 

What is productivity monitoring?

Productivity monitoring is focused on individual output. While it’s often used interchangeably with employee monitoring, the two differ in scope, purpose, and implementation. 

Employee monitoring is broader in scope and may include productivity monitoring and combine it with other surveillance mechanisms to gain information on the employee. 

Productivity monitoring, however, is one-dimensional – it usually involves software that tracks employee activities during work hours and captures basic information, such as what time they arrive at work, much like a personal productivity app. 

Indeed, a good way to think about it is like this –  if you’re a freelancer, you would never use employee monitoring for yourself, but you might use productivity monitoring. 

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With productivity monitoring, there remains some level of intrusiveness, as the manager can see what an employee is doing while on the clock, but it’s typically lower than with employee monitoring. A core difference is that with productivity monitoring apps, employees tend to have access to most, if not all, of their personal information – which is extremely important to them

Accordingly, when it comes to implementation, productivity monitoring encounters less resistance, as it also offers direct benefits to the employees themselves since they can:

  • Identify and improve personal productivity patterns, 
  • Prove their own performance by referring to objective data,
  • Simplify tracking of billable hours,
  • And more. 

That said, productivity monitoring can also be misused by management. Uncharitable interpretations of productivity data or increases in micromanagement are common problems, so much like with employee monitoring, an effort should be made to avoid these issues and give employees the peace of mind that they won’t be treated unfairly. The silver lining is that the employees can defend themselves, as they’ve access to the same data. 

Employee monitoring vs productivity monitoring – summary of key differences

Here’s a table that provides a quick overview of key differences between employee and productivity monitoring:

Employee MonitoringProductivity Monitoring
FocusFocuses on behavior, activity, and productivity monitoringFocuses on personal productivity
ScopePotentially extensive, including computer activity, attendance, behavior, and communicationNarrower, typically focused on tasks and direct performance
PurposeTo evaluate employees’ professional performance and alignment with company values, as well as protect sensitive informationTo assess and enhance overall work efficiency and boost productivity
Privacy concernsRaises significant privacy concerns as it involves detailed monitoring of individual activities and behaviorsLess invasive, as it concentrates on individual performance at work
Employee perceptionMay lead to a lack of trust, increased stress, and decreased morale among employeesGenerally viewed more positively as it focuses on improving work processes and efficiency
Implementation challengesMay face resistance and legal challenges due to privacy concerns and employee pushbackGenerally more accepted, but still requires clear communication and transparent policies

DeskTime – all of the benefits, none of the problems

DeskTime is a productivity monitoring software used by over 500,000 people worldwide – from individual freelancers to giant corporations. Focused on maximizing the productivity of individuals and teams alike, DeskTime offers the best of productivity monitoring and enhances it with project management, human resource planning, and other business-friendly features that make it the ultimate all-in-one time tracker for your business. 

Our goal is to boost your productivity, and we do this by enabling you to:

  • Automatically track your time and productivity,
  • Easily oversee work progress,
  • Optimize your resources,
  • Run your office smoothly,
  • Have a healthy work-life balance,
  • And more.

Explore all DeskTime features and try it for free today.

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