There are a variety of applications designed to manage employees' time. More specifically, they're designed to keep employees from wasting time.
- Keystroke-monitoring software
- Mail scanners
- Web-usage monitoring
- Website restriction software, to prevent pornography and other non-business usage of the Internet
I refer to these as "whipware," as they exist to "crack the whip" on your employees.
Monitoring and logging computer activity is not inherently evil; done properly, it is very useful. However, when these tools are used as an intrusive, day-to-day monitor of employees, they are costly, ineffective, counter-productive, and bad for morale.
The best solution to all the above issues, as well as other time-wasting issues such as personal calls on the telephone, is:
"Do your job — or lose it."
This simple little rule covers every instance of time-wasting, and requires no software to maintain or upgrade. It does, however, require management. That is, it requires managers to properly manage employees. There's just no getting around this, as you'll see below. The available technology can't, and most likely never will, be able to solve this problem in a satisfactory manner.
Why whipware doesn't work
Why whipware is ineffective
The problem with technology-based solutions to time-wasting is that time-wasters will always find ways to waste time. Block web access, and they'll spend all day on the phone. Block personal calls, and they'll spend all day reading playing Windows Solitaire. Remove that, and they'll read the newspaper. Get rid of anything but bare walls, a telephone, and a computer… and they'll just work slower, while complaining about it constantly to anyone within earshot.
Usually, your biggest time-wasters are your biggest complainers as well… funny how that works. Get rid of them, and you'll save payroll and boost productivity at the same time.
Why whipware is bad for morale
By building a work environment to control the least common denominator, you'll make your workplace unbearable for your highly productive people, who not only don't need such controls — their productivity will be hindered by them, and their morale will be damaged.
The worst idea ever was the keystroke monitor. You might as well have a video camera pointing straight in your employee's face. How would you like being monitored in such an intrusive fashion? There are much better ways of measuring productivity than that. It's also not going to stop the devoted time-waster: they can quickly make up for a slacking session by typing something like a magazine article into a file they later discard, once it's outside of the context of the monitor (i.e.: at the end of the day.) You can type really fast when you're just copying; your time-waster may have the best "performance statistics" in your office!
Librarians are fighting web-blocking software for a very good reason: there are so many websites on the Internet, and content changes so rapidly, it is absolutely impossible for human reviewers to categorize and classify every page on the Internet. So, it's done automatically, by software, which as of this writing, is not particularly intelligent. Do you want your employees to not be able to read the Wall Street Journal online because the front page has a link to a story about breast cancer, or how ISPs are dealing with pornography on their customers' sites?
The best way to destroy morale is to treat adults like children.
The best way to boost morale is to get the "children" out of the adult workplace, so you can treat the adults like adults — and get adult performance out of them.
Why a little time-wasting is a wonderful thing
I usually recommend not getting rid of simple games like Windows Solitaire or Minesweeper. Sometimes, your employees simply need a break. Or they can't leave their office during lunch, and don't feel like reading some boring technical article.
Your most productive employees will still waste time. This time-wasting is essential to their productivity. The chats with friends, surfing funny websites, and the like give them the break they need to race forward again.
What does work
Again, management is the key here. Everyone drifts away from the path of righteous profit-making from time to time. By keeping an eye on your employees' productivity, you'll see when they're spending too much time on diversions and not enough time on the business. As soon as you notice this, mention it right then. The sooner, the better.
If you mention it as soon as you notice it, it's easy to fix. You're not mad yet, but you've noticed. Just mention, "It looks like you're not getting as much done lately; is something wrong?" Word that however you like, but there's no need to get nasty about it — yet. Your employee may not have noticed his or her "slacking". But, chances are, if you can notice it, so can they. If they're good employees, a simple friendly note of the fact will be all it will take to get them right back on track again.
Wait too long, and you're in the "annoyed" stage. Now the meeting with your wayward employee will be less pleasant than if you'd done it in the "noticing" stage.
Wait way too long, and you've probably ruined your relationship with this employee. By now, you've probably had a negative attitude towards this employee for some time. They've undoubtedly noticed that, but still don't know why.
A baseball manager doesn't play baseball; he (or she) helps his players play better baseball. Substitute "baseball" for your business, and you're probably right on track. If you're a good manager, you just don't need the aforementioned technological terrors — they're completely redundant. Even if they worked perfectly, they would only solve a subset of the productivity problem.
Viewing inappropriate material
In my former role as an IT manager, we had this issue arise once. I don't remember exactly what I said, but it went something like this, and we never had a problem with the issue again:
No employee in his or her right mind would bring a pornographic magazine to work — although I've seen it done before. If you wouldn't read it in a magazine with the company's president sitting in your guest chair, you shouldn't be reading it on your computer screen.
Even if your computer screen is not publicly visible, all it takes is one time while you're looking at such stuff at work when a phone call comes in which makes you dash away from your desk… and forget to close your browser window. Then someone comes into your office looking for you. Oops. You're busted. Plus, it's in your browser cache and history now too. That'll cost you.
Just don't do it. You'll look like a fool, and you'll be unemployed to boot.
Personal e-mail at work
Back to my IT manager days again: here was another non-issue. I decided to nip this in the bud before it ever became one.
If you need to, you can use your company address for personal business as long as you don't spend too much time at it.
Every inbound and outbound e-mail message here is archived. Your words will be preserved for posterity. Be sure to make your words sweet and tender, for one day you may have to eat them.
There are dozens of free web-based e-mail services out there. Your best bet is to set yourself up an account on one of these and use that. That way, it doesn't come from a company mail server, the reply won't go to a company mail server, and we won't log it, because we won't see it.
I strongly suggest that you use an offsite e-mail service for your personal e-mail.
There are exceptions to every rule…
…but, usually, they're not that exceptional.
You may have a group or division that, for whatever reason, doesn't need Internet access or e-mail. Go ahead and block Internet access… you can't have a machine infected with the latest Outlook worm or Internet Explorer exploit if they can't surf the Internet or exchange e-mail with anyone outside of the company.
If you're running a call center, productivity measurements are important… but in that case, your productivity is a combination of orders (or claims, or whatever) processed and customer satisfaction with the processing.
If you have an easy way to measure productivity, chances are, it's not that accurate. If it is that accurate… chances are, you're wasting your time reading this document.
Monitoring and logging is not inherently evil…
…but it has tremendous evil potential, and must be carefully used.
I recommend archiving all inbound and outbound e-mail… not for using to crack the whip, but because:
- E-mail you send may be used as evidence against you in a court of law someday; you want to have the complete correspondence logged. Your adversary will probably "lose" the messages that don't support their claim.
- People make mistakes and delete their archived messages from time to time. If you archive e-mail, you can recover their messages for them.
I've never run an Internet access logger myself. But it could be argued that there are legitimate reasons for doing so. Such logs…
- may help you understand how your employees use the Internet to get their jobs done.
- may help curtail loss of sensitive information over the Internet, or at least identify the source of the leak.
- may be useful evidence in the event that you have a loser employee who really is wasting their time surfing the 'net in spite of your best efforts to get him or her to work.
Did that last one leave you thinking "So, you're telling me to monitor my employees' Internet access after all? Then what's the point of this paper?" The point of this paper is to not rely on monitoring technology as a panacea for your productivity problems. Use your head along with your data. Failure to do so may leave you looking like a fool. Here's an example of this from a former employer who shall remain unnamed…
I was sitting in for my manager who was out of town one week, when we had a meeting about telephone usage. The man from the main office came in and presented us with a stern lecture about wasted time spent on the telephone. The first example highlighted was some extension which was consistently making telephone calls about 90 minutes after normal working hours.
After waiting for the red to drain back out of my face, I gently pointed out that that was my extension, and it was me calling home (a local call, by the way) to tell my wife when I'd finally get to leave and get home, so she could make me a late dinner.
After much stammering on the presenter's part, and suppressed chuckles on the part of everyone else in the meeting, the presentation continued. Not that anyone paid any attention after that point.
Data taken out of context is frequently misleading.
The Internet, and the Web in particular, make it much easier to "dial the wrong number." How would you like it if you were reading a news story in a management rag about graphic sexual content in the workplace, inadvertently clicked on a mentioned site, and had this access logged and reviewed by your boss?
I hope I've convinced you to not tread down the dark path of whipware. If you insist on doing it anyway in spite of all my warnings to not do so, you're better off having another company doing it for you. We (myself and associates) have all had to endure it in one form or another, we think it's a bad idea, and would just as soon have nothing to do with it.
If you think you have a valid reason to implement such systems, I'd like to discuss it with you. Perhaps you do have a valid reason… and perhaps you don't.
And again, monitoring and logging is a good thing, if done for the right reasons. These tools are no substitute for good management, but used in conjunction with good management, can help you to run your systems better.
Ron Oliver, Manager
September 4, 2004 (original November 19, 2002)