Technology trends in tracking time or monitoring employees

By Patricia Bouweraerts

Americans at school or work are increasingly being tracked or are wearing a badge — inside the badges RFID data chips and spiral-shaped antennae send and receive information — and badges are worn around the neck, close to a person’s heart.

Photo of RFID badge, courtesy of Jerstad Photographics LLC.

Photo of a school ID and an RFID badge, with permission of Jerstad Photographics LLC. The image first appeared in MySanAntonio.com in “Appeals panel rejects student’s request on RFID badge,” by Francisco Vara-Orta.

One such badge has sensors and microphones and hangs from a lanyard. It has been developed by a Boston-based company, Humanyze. The badge has two microphones analyzing the tone of your voice and whom you talk to, and sensors keeping track of where you are and how much you move. Monitoring beacons are not intended to be present in the bathroom, but across the other common or shared areas of the workplace.

Ben Waber, Ph.D., president and CEO of Humanyze predicts that in a few years every employee ID badge will have similar sensors.

Sophisticated badges like this will be used by employers to increase productivity, adjust management processes and gauge how they pay workers, Waber said in an article by Thomas Heath of The Washington Post.

Whether it’s radio-frequency identification (RFID) badges, time-tracking programs, hand-scanning technology or computer-monitoring software, there are more ways to watch employees now than ever before.

“With new and creative technology increasingly available every day, it is safe to assume that biometric systems in the workplace will become more and more popular,” wrote attorneys C. R. Wright and Julia H. Wilson on FisherPhillips.com.

People are learning more about, adapting with and sometimes reacting to being watched in the workplace.

Biometric scanning

Biometric Hand Scanning Device

Hand scanning device, image by Z22 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

A Pennsylvania-based mining firm, the CONSOL Energy and Consolidation Coal Company, implemented a biometric hand scanner to monitor their employees’ attendance and hours. An employee for 35 years, Beverly R. Butcher, Jr. asked to be excluded from the hand scanner due to his faith. When Butcher was pushed into retirement, the company was sued by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) on Butcher’s behalf.

In 2015, a federal court in West Virginia awarded Butcher compensatory damages, lost wages and benefits.

“The mining companies refused to consider alternate means of tracking Butcher’s time and attendance, such as allowing him to submit manual time records as he had done previously or reporting to his supervisor, even though the mining company had made similar exceptions to the hand scanning for two employees with missing fingers,” according to an EEOC press release. “The EEOC charges that Butcher was forced to retire because the companies refused to provide an accommodation to his religious beliefs.”

A hand scanner works by analyzing the shape of your hand.

“First, the biometric time clock scans and captures data from the geometry of the employee’s hand,” Wright and Wilson wrote. “Then a camera in the biometric device takes a picture of the employee’s hand and the shadow it causes, using that information to determine the length, width, thickness, and curvature of the hand. Finally, this information is then in turn used by the device to identify the employee.”

Biometric scanning gives an employer data showing who was working and when.

“Employers are also looking for better ways to provide for security and restrict access to specific areas in the workplace, and to be able to know which individuals were present in specific workplace areas at any given time,” Wright and Wilson added. “For remote tracking of employees, GPS devices have been used for some time to allow an employer to know the location of a company vehicle or specific employee.”

Wireless badge that monitors hand washing

General Sensing Limited, a company that produces sensor products for the health care industry, has developed a technology to monitor hand-washing practices of hospital employees. On its website, MedSense is listed as the company’s flagship product.

“The MedSense Badge, which can be worn in the same style as a standard identification card, automatically captures and uploads hand hygiene performance data in near-real time without disrupting hospital operations,” according to the brochure for MedSense.

The technology uses wireless communication and rechargeable batteries. Beacons placed near patient beds establish a zone where an employee needs to wash or sanitize their hands. Nearby soap containers have a monitor that sends information back to the employee’s badge when soap or alcohol have been dispensed. If the worker enters or exits the patient zone without cleaning their hands, the badge will vibrate along with blinking red and blue lights — these serving as reminders.

When employees are within a few yards of a base station, the badge uploads handwashing data to the dedicated cloud-based application so that it can be viewed on a dashboard with an internet browser.

“Compliance data is automatically uploaded to MedSense HQ and is enhanced with a wide array of tools and metrics,” according to the brochure.

One of the “tools and metrics” bullet points is to “Identify compliance trends for individuals, units, and departments.”

HyGreen, Inc. is another company that produces similar sensors for the health care field. CloudClean™ manufactures these types of devices for the food service industry.

Card-lock doors

Door-locking and unlocking systems can also be set up with RFID badges. Henry Marcy, software engineer at an RFID startup wrote in response to a question posted on Quora.com about what it’s like to wear an RFID badge.

“Every door at my work has an RFID lock on it,” Marcy wrote. “I keep my badge in my wallet instead of wearing it, but other than the slight bother of needing to scan my badge every time I pass through a door, and the greater bother (though still fairly slight) of needing to open doors for people who have lost or forgotten their badges, I barely notice it. Also it’s nice to know that if I forget how many hours I worked last Thursday when I’m filling out my time sheet, I can just go check the door records for my first and last scans of the day.”

Some employees think that locking door systems are a way of monitoring their movements. Sahra Luke, a writer and former management consultant, wrote an answer to a Quora.com question about the reasons people say they quit a past job. The company president at the firm where she worked showed lack of trust in employees by initiating policies including monitoring a doorway.

“…Installed an alarm on the back door so she could monitor our movements; cut all our benefits but took a $50K raise; threatened us with dismissal if we criticized the company anywhere at any time …,” Luke wrote.

Monitoring traders’ behavior with AI

“Behavox uses machine learning, also known as artificial intelligence, to scrutinize every aspect of an employee’s working life,” wrote Gavin Finch and Edward Robinson on Bloomberg.com.

“The technology enables computers to teach themselves how to collate and analyze huge volumes of data,” the authors wrote. “Behavox scans petabytes of data, flagging anything that deviates from the norm for further investigation.”

A petabyte is 1,024 terabytes. Each terabyte is 1,024 gigabytes. So, a lot of data.

“That could be something as seemingly innocuous as shouting on a phone call, accessing a work computer in the middle of the night, or visiting the restroom more than colleagues,” Finch and Robinson wrote. “The system checks these behaviors against case studies of past traders who have strayed from the straight and narrow and looks for a match.”

Computer-monitoring software

Employees can be supervised with computer-monitoring software in some U.S. states without being told.

Monitoring can include tracking the following activity on company desktop and laptop computers:

• Websites employees have visited
• Files that are downloaded
• Connection or removal of external drives
• Keyword searches on browsers
• Inactivity monitor; an approved site is up but idle

Employers may be concerned that workers use a keyword to look for another job, for searching pornography, or making contacts at competing companies, wrote Jill Bowers in an article about employee-monitoring software programs posted on TopTenReviews.com.

“While the federal government doesn’t place restrictions on employee internet monitoring, some individual states have put protections in place,” Bowers wrote. “An increasing number of states are requiring employers to notify their workers if their company monitors online activity, including emails and keystrokes. These notifications can be disclosed within the employee handbook, as part of the new worker orientation or simply sent out as an email reminder to employees.”

In Nevada, employees can be told that they will not be monitored while they work, but the employer reserves the right to go back and review browser history if there arises a suspicion of wrongdoing determined by the organization’s designated official. The examination of files may be limited to the matter being questioned.

Bowers wrote that most computer-monitoring programs can operate either transparently or secretly in the background. This is called stealth or silent mode.

“If you decide to monitor employee activity and email, all of the solutions on our top 10 list include monitoring features for website activity; removable storage, such as flash drives; keyword alerts; and keystroke capturing,” she wrote.

Nicole Lipkin, Psy.D., M.B.A., a business psychologist, wrote on Medium.com that a boss checking on his or her employees is spending time avoiding the work of managing, somewhat corresponding to the avoidance of employee work that a boss is trying to catch. She wrote that this watching is the opposite of trusting workers.

“Rather than create a prisoner mentality in your employees, foster a self-leadership mentality so they feel they have the space to get their work done,” she wrote. ”If you need proof of concept look to Netflix, one of the fastest growing companies in the last 10 years, who nurture an autonomous atmosphere where quality over quantity is rewarded. If that doesn’t do it for you, research has shown that little breaks in the workday actually promote productivity. At the 90-minute mark on a single task our brains tend to lose focus. Little breaks spent checking Facebook or watching a funny YouTube video  —  as well as anything else that doesn’t have to do with work  —  serves as a mental reboot.”

Time Doctor is a program that monitors Web page usage and applications, performs screen monitoring and tracks time. With a webcam, it can take photos of the employee based on a set schedule.

“A Time Doctor (client) company owner can enable this feature to capture an image of the worker once every 10 minutes,” according to a TimeDoctor.com website support page.

A question asked on HackForums.net in March was on the topic of how to turn off one of the program’s features. A response was posted by Becky G.

“Go on a web proxy site and just search whatever you want through that,” she wrote. “You could even use Google translate to translate webpages.”

Time-tracking software

Methods of tracking time can range from a simple spreadsheet in Excel that employees themselves enter in values, to complex software solutions that are free or can be purchased. There are online cloud-based programs or those installed on workstations.

Some self-employed individuals like to track their productivity with a time-tracking program. Also, law, consulting and marketing or design companies need to track time on tasks in order to know how to bill clients for project-based work.

Alternatively, time monitoring may be put into place so that managers can find what employees spend the most time on, should they want to adjust the distribution of tasks in their office or department.

“One area of resistance many people have to using time-tracking software is a fear that they’ll waste too much time actually plugging information into the system,” wrote Jason Fitzpatrick in an article on time-tracking applications posted on LifeHacker.com.

Some of the programs run in the background without direct employee input.

“Rather than have you log each individual activity you do in a journal-style system, RescueTime monitors the websites you visit and the applications you use,” Fitzpatrick wrote. “You can set goals in RescueTime based on a variety of factors, like how much time you want to spend doing certain tasks or how much time you want to dedicate to certain projects. RescueTime analyzes your computer usage and reports back to you on whether or not you’re meeting those goals.”

Creators of time-tracking software say that this type of program benefits both companies and their employees. Dave Nevogt, co-founder of Hubstaff said in a Quora.com post that the software takes screenshots of your desktop. He quoted Jared Brown, Hubstaff’s lead developer who wrote an article on the company’s blog.

“Since Hubstaff takes screenshots and monitors activity levels it provides proof that great work is being done, and show(s) exactly what they are working on,” wrote Brown on Hubstaff’s blog. “Sometimes employers can have unrealistic expectations because they just don’t understand how long specific tasks take. Hubstaff allows you to show them the work is being done consistently and at high levels without having to do anything at all. It provides automatic documentation of hours, work screens, activity levels and more.”

What do employees think about tracking their time? In a Quora.com answer to the question “What is the importance of time tracking in software development,” Tim Ichiyasu wrote that it was counter-productive for him.

“It (time-tracking software) stimulates a feeling of ‘being watched’ by developers, which is not a welcome feeling in the tech industry especially,” Ichiyasu wrote. “It further separates management from engineering. ‘Management is not held responsible for their time tracking discrepancies, so why should I?’ Remember that it is important to maintain mutual respect on all levels of employment in order to have a healthy work environment. This is harder to do when one group gives themselves a certain ‘power’ over another group.”

He added that time-tracking may be perceived as being micromanaged, and it’s also time-consuming.

“It takes time,” Ichiyasu wrote. “It’s very possible to have diminishing returns on time tracking if it’s too granular. The last thing you want is people spending more time tracking time than accomplishing tasks.”

On TomsGuide.com, which includes a forum devoted to tech products, a reader asked if fellow techies were aware of a good software to track the time of a new employee based in another country. One response came from Phil Frisbie.

“You could just trust him,” Frisbee wrote. “Seriously, short of getting a report from someone on-site that you trust, no software can be fully trusted. Any software can be bypassed or manipulated and just showing your lack of trust by using tracking software might be the motivation needed for him to justify manipulating it. How about negotiating some other metric, like a short daily summary which, along with copies of code completed, that will satisfy you he has worked the hours he claims.”

Christina DesMarais, an Inc.com contributor wrote an article about the management philosophies of Irv Shapiro, CEO of phone call analytics and automation technology company DialogTech. She wrote that he doesn’t have the goal to track his employees’ time.

“A stellar business culture is one in which values are aligned with what’s actually happening in a company,” she wrote about the DialogTech management process. “So, if one of your key values is hiring competent, trustworthy professionals, you’re contradicting yourself — measuring their time actually indicates you don’t trust them.”

The no time-tracking philosophy has proven itself at DialogTech, and at Zappos, DesMarais wrote in the June article.

“Take a lesson from Zappos, which encourages its call center employees to have extended conversations with customers — the exact opposite tack of most companies,” she wrote. “’Why is it that Zappos is so much bigger than everyone else? Because they’re able to build trust,’ Shapiro says. ‘Why are they able to build trust? Because they incent their agents to have the most meaningful conversations they can have with their customers without measuring the time or the length of those conversations.’”

So, basic unplugged stuff has been successful at work — conversation and trust, without complex software or monitoring solutions …not needed may be the badge with a chip and antenna that is hung around a person’s neck.

Updated Jan. 22, 2017