For Jayson DeMers, tracking his employees’ productivity was an obvious choice when the pandemic hit. As the CEO of a productivity monitoring software company himself, DeMers was ahead of the curve. “We use Hubstaff here at EmailAnalytics for tracking hours,” he told the Business of Business. Hubstaff tracks the amount of time contractors spend on tasks, taking random screenshots as evidence. “And for email productivity, we use our own app, EmailAnalytics.”

EmailAnalytics silently tracks employees’ email activity and displays it in interactive tables and graphs. Employers can track average email response time, top senders and recipients, and email activity by hour of the day or day of the week. In 2020, two years after its launch, demand in DeMers’ product grew with the widespread shift to work-from-home. From January to December of last year, EmailAnalytics’ organic users per month increased from a little under 10,000 to nearly 25,000. 

“People behave differently when they know they're being monitored or held accountable for their on-the-clock activity,” DeMers says. “I've had unfortunate experiences in the past, before implementing monitoring tools, so these days I just get ahead of the problem and prevent it before it can start.”

Hubstaff and EmailAnalytics are far from the only productivity monitoring software companies benefitting from the COVID crisis. Awareness Technologies, the parent company of InterGuard, a market leader in employee monitoring software, claimed the company had seen three to four times growth in its customer base during the first two months of the pandemic. (Hubstaff made a similar claim, saying the number of companies trialing its technology grew by two to three times in the same period.) 

Competitors in "bossware" battle it out  

The use of productivity monitoring software, or “bossware,” has been growing for years, and WFH accelerated and normalized the trend. A 2019 Gartner survey of 239 corporations found that more than half were already employing “nontraditional monitoring techniques.” The market's expansion reveals itself in some of the key players’ web traffic data. 

Workpuls’ daily pageview count shot up over 1000% from 2019 to 2020, reaching an average of 1.9 million in December. Time Doctor, yet another competitor in the productivity monitoring software space, hit 5.9 million average daily pageviews in July after hovering around 2 million throughout 2019.

Over the past two years, ActivTrak’s daily average has soared over 200%. The company’s web traffic has been climbing since 2019, when it hit 3.9 million daily pageviews. From March to July of last year, pageviews increased by 153% to a daily average of 5.6 million. 

Teramind, a computer monitoring software company that specializes in workplace productivity tools, peaked at 9.9 million daily pageviews last July, up from July 2019’s 1.1 million average. That’s a whopping 800% increase.

According to data gathered by Elise DeCamp of the early stage VC firm Bloomberg Beta, most bossware companies lack any major venture capital. Veriato, Hubstaff, Vericlock, and Interguard have not listed raising any capital on Crunchbase. ActivTrak, Teramind, and Workpuls are the lone leaders, the only ones that have raised capital. ActivTrak recently raised $70 million in a Series B, Teramind has raised $6 million since its 2014 launch, and Workpuls launched in 2016 with seed funding.

Some of the biggest companies in the world use bossware, DeCamp points out. Instacart, Groupon, and Ring all use Hubstaff. Time Doctor counts 83,000 customers, including Allstate, Ericsson, Verizon, and Re/Max. ActivTrak is used by over 6,500 organizations, including Arizona State University, Emory University, and the cities of Denver and Malibu. 

Taking pageviews, clientele, and funding into account, ActivTrak seems to be the present winner. What’s more? ActivTrak partners with Okta, the cybersecurity unicorn that’s publicly traded with a $34 billion market cap.

Typical features 

Bossware collects basically everything that happens on a device. The most common feature is “activity monitoring," which includes a log of applications and websites that workers use. Sometimes it will keep track of who they contact via email and posts on social media. Many tools record how much a user types and clicks to provide minute-by-minute productivity reports and charts. Most services take frequent screenshots of workers' screen and display them on daily timelines. Keylogger functions record workers' keystrokes, including unsent emails, private passwords, and other personal data. Some services go as far as tracking employees' GPS locations and activating webcams and microphones on worker devices.

Below is a breakdown of leading surveillance services' main features, based on research done by the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Activity monitoring Screenshots or screen recordings Keylogging Webcam/microphone activation "Invisible" mode option
Activtrak Confirmed Confirmed Confirmed
Hubstaff Confirmed Confirmed
Interguard Confirmed Confirmed Confirmed Confirmed
Teramind Confirmed Confirmed Confirmed Confirmed
Time Doctor Confirmed Confirmed Confirmed
Workpuls Confirmed Confirmed Confirmed

Inherent risks for all parties 

Some employers will be transparent with their workers about using productivity monitoring services. “What I have learned is that it's crucial to let employees know they're being monitored,” DeMers says. “That creates accountability, eliminates performance lapses, and boosts productivity.” Other companies, of course, make this information private, and the surveillance software helps them keep the secret.

Teramind and Time Doctor design their software to be as difficult to detect and remove as possible, similar to stalkerware. InterGuard’s website advertises that its “employee monitoring software can be silently and remotely installed, so you can conduct covert investigations [of your workers] and bullet-proof evidence gathering without alarming the suspected wrongdoer.” This evidence can be used to “fight wrongful termination suits.” In other words, employers can secretly collect their workers' private information to use against them and deflect blame if a worker were to take legal action against unfair treatment.

Employers’ use of surveillance software is technically legal and specific rules vary from state to state. But laws around consumer data privacy are evolving alongside productivity monitoring tools. The potential future risk for these software companies and the organizations using their services is uncertain. And while many employers using the software report positive feedback, the lack of privacy doesn’t just threaten the workers’ security, it could work against the companies’ bottom line.

“The irony of it is [productivity monitoring software] is going to lead to less productivity, because there's less creates more resentment,” Josh Davies, CEO at the Center for Work Ethic Development, says. “I think it truly has to be a human solution. People forget the things that are most effective in managing people are still high touch skills. Rather than having an electronic watchdog, we can build the trust that the work is going to get done. The idea that you're constantly checking in only further erodes the trust that you need to have as an organization during this time of remote work.”

About the Data:

Thinknum tracks companies using the information they post online, jobs, social and web traffic, product sales, and app ratings, and creates data sets that measure factors like hiring, revenue, and foot traffic. Data sets may not be fully comprehensive (they only account for what is available on the web), but they can be used to gauge performance factors like staffing and sales.

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