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The 5 pitfalls of time tracking software

We're in the age of remote work and flexible employment. These days, employee time tracking software has become a profitable little corner of the business tech market. It's easy to see why. Whether employees work from home, or a centralised office, managers worry about slacking and procrastination. But think about the disadvantages of time tracking software before you're tempted.

Time tracking software is also known as staff tracking, productivity monitoring or performance tracking software. It monitors things like how often an employee clicks, how long they spend on a given page or app, the amount of time between actions, and other factors. Some even provide employers with live views of an employee’s desktop, log their keystrokes and much more. While the exact factors vary between tools, this data is then turned into an overall productivity metric.

We've talked about the problem with staff tracking before. But, although we touched on some of the other negatives, that was mainly focused on the trust issues it creates. And, with the recent development of time tracking software providing evidence in court, we thought we’d give it another look. So, today, we're going through each of the major disadvantages of time tracking software.

How common is productivity tracking software at work?

Turns out that throwing together a comprehensive list of employers that use time tracking software is easier said than done. It seems not many employers want to publicise their use of it. Funny, that.

In 2019, a CIPD survey found 8 in 10 employees predicting an increase in surveillance from employers. Then, in February 2020, it emerged that Barclays was using "Big Brother" style monitoring software on their staff. And, since the Pandemic, demand has increased.

According to research from Top10VPN, sustained demand for time tracking software has increased by 58% since 2020. WFH arrangements may have become more common. But so have managers looking to clamp down on their employees.

So, despite all the disadvantages of time tracking software, why do so many managers gravitate towards it?

The desire to boost productivity

This is the most benign (but still misguided) reason to implement performance tracking software. Quantitative metrics can be a really useful tool for management and HR. So, some business leaders assume these scores can help them get the best out of their people. 

General distrust of employees

When you boil it down, the point of time tracking is to catch employees red-handed when they're goofing off. And, to be fair, when you're using a computer for office work, there can be a lot of distractions. But feeling the need to use software like this shows a lack of trust. We'd generally lump this in with nervous micromanagement as the bad habit of an inexperienced manager.

Negative perceptions of remote staff

There's growing evidence that remote staff are equally or more productive at home compared to in the office. Yet, despite this, too many people hold onto the outdated perception of remote workers as lazy or less committed. There's a reason demand for time tracking tools has increased post-Pandemic. The ways remote staff get treated as a result of these perceptions can make them feel pressured to work longer hours, increasing their risk of burnout.

The 5 major disadvantages of time tracking your employees

Although time tracking software has gained popularity, we’d urge you to give it a miss. There are much more effective ways to track employee performance, which we’ll cover in the next section. But, in the meantime, here are biggest disadvantages of time tracking at work.

1. Spying on employees kills trust and morale

Resembling little more than legitimised spyware, there’s no quicker way to show a lack of trust than saddling employees with a tracking app. Nobody likes having someone breathing down the back of their neck, and the virtual equivalent isn’t much better. Regardless of whether employees are caught goofing off or not, knowing they’re being watched saps morale. You’re essentially waiting for employees to step out of line.

Giving employees autonomy helps them to stay self-motivated and take pride in their work. But if you’re offering autonomy with one hand, and pushing time tracking software on them with the other, it’s inevitably going to send mixed messages.

2. Its metrics are all kinds of questionable

One of the biggest disadvantages of time tracking apps is that they don’t actually measure anything useful. Much less related to anything that correlates with productivity. These time tracking tools claim to assess performance.

There are all kinds of holes to poke in how time tracking programs measure productivity. But the most blatant example is that they measure inputs, not outputs. They’ll measure how fast you type, how long you spend reading a webpage. But those things aren’t what matter.

Results matter. How well your project actually performs for the business matters. Sure, time is a factor. But not minute-to-minute, second to second nonsense. As long as you advance your goals each day, do your due diligence and hit your deadlines, literally nothing else matters.

3. Employees learn how to game the system

The knock-on effect of this is the same as any other arbitrary numbers game: Employees start treating it like a game. And we don’t mean in a productivity-boosting way. We mean they’ll do what a lot of people do in video games, and find ways of breaking the system. They’ll figure out what the system likes so that they can easily feed it information that nets them a higher score. That way, they can get away with doing as little as possible.

“But why would they do that?” we hear you ask. Well, by showing employees you don’t trust them, you’ve basically disincentivized them to engage with their role. So, at that point, they might as well switch off. You weren’t going to assess their actual performance anyway, so why bother?

4. Employee spyware is arguably unethical

We can’t talk about the disadvantages of time tracking software without addressing the ethical concerns. We can’t stress enough that this is basically spyware under a thin veneer of workplace friendliness. First off, people have a right to privacy.

It would be one thing if only in-office devices were monitored. But employees also have to contend with the fact that employers are often monitoring devices they spend personal time on too. Whether you’re a remote employee working on a personal device, or someone who also has to depend on their company laptop for personal use. It's unsettling that employers can easily skim your social media habits, your browser history, or anything else they’re interested in.

Then there’s the fact that these scores, which we’ve established aren’t objective, affect people’s careers. Some businesses will pit employee scores against each other for things like financial incentives or career opportunities. Employees deserve to be assessed on the work they produce, and their contributions to the business. Not whether they managed to set the office record for shortest toilet break.

5. Tracking software chains people to their desks

Last but not least on our list of the disadvantages of time tracking, it essentially makes employees feel they can’t leave their desk. Any time they aren’t at their computer is time they’re registered as not working. And maybe that’s what you’re going for. But why? Is it because of remote work, or are you trying to stop people in offices taking a breather too?

First off, it ignores good health practice. Using computers all day is pretty unhealthy. Regular breaks prevent eyestrain, musculoskeletal disorders and circulation problems. Secondly, it ignores how stepping away from our work can help us think things through. It’s those moments when inspiration suddenly strikes, or when talking to a colleague gives you perspective.

And thirdly, it increases the risk of presenteeism and burnout. Sometimes, getting through the work day is like running a marathon. If you’re working full tilt at all hours, you’ll never last. Those moments where you slow down and catch your breath are what get you to the end of the day.

Better alternatives than software for tracking performance

Now that we’ve been through the disadvantages of time tracking, let’s look at some better options. Performance management and progress updates matter, but there’s a right and wrong way to go about these things.

Employee check-ins measure outputs and impacts

A weekly employee check-in gives managers regular progress updates, as well as a real-time view of employee engagement and sentiment. Unlike time tracking software, check-ins actually give employees a voice to self-advocate. This is because feedback is a two-way process. The presence of tracking software hangs over employees.

But a regular check-in is something they can actually look forward to as a way of having their say. Additionally, the goal-tracking is more effective than a time tracking score, since it focuses purely on results. By using OKRs, you can even connect employee projects to your overarching goals with quantifiable results.

Use goal setting to establish clear expectations

Another benefit of goal-tracking is that it establishes clear expectations. Employees understand their assigned tasks, and the progress expected. This is much better than a passive, ambiguous rating system. With time tracking, employees are stuck waiting to be told their score isn’t good enough. But, with goal-tracking, employees know whether they’re making acceptable progress before their manager ever talks to them.

Build a culture based on trust, not spying with performance tracking software

And, finally, remember that it’s all about cultivating trust with your employees. Workplace trust isn’t always a given. Employees who’ve had bad experiences (like at the hands of draconian time tracking software) can be distrustful of management. Managers and HR must lead by example by putting a certain amount of trust in employees to complete their jobs with autonomy.

As tempting as it can be to spy on your employees, understand that this is basically professional anxiety talking. If you take a breath and a step back, and let your people get on with their work, they’ll surprise you in the best of ways.

Need some tips on how to manage remote teams without resorting to time tracking software? Grab a copy of our best practice guide: How to be a better manager for your people. Get your free download below 👇