With advances in technology, and with cloud-based collaboration software, such as Slack, becoming more widely available, more and more businesses are allowing their employees to work remotely. Implementing a telecommuting policy doesn't just help employees save time on their commute -- it also helps improve work-life balance, and can be a big perk that helps your company attract high-caliber employees. In addition to the benefits for employees, allowing staff to work from home can also reduce your business costs, including utilities, food, and rent.
Though there are many advantages to allowing employees to work remotely, even the most trusting business owners may wonder how they can actually verify that remote employees are actually working on their assigned tasks. This is where remote employee monitoring software can help.
Key features of remote employee monitoring software
Remote employee monitoring software offers various capabilities, some of which are considered core features that are included in most systems, and some advanced features that can come with an additional fee, or as part of a premium tier.
Below are some of the core functionalities that you can expect from most remote employee monitoring systems.
This keeps track of the employee’s time logged into the system. For example, if an employee logs in to the remote monitoring program at 8:00 a.m. and logs out at 4:00 p.m., the software will record and log that employee’s time as eight hours.
Active time tracking
Active time tracks the time during a session that someone is typing or moving their mouse. This metric is then logged, so that administrators or managers can monitor the employee’s total active time. For example, if a remote employee logs eight hours on a specific date and is typing or using their mouse for six hours, the system will report the total hours, and what percent of that time was considered active time (in this case, 75% active time for the eight-hour session).
Remote employee monitoring software can be used to record screenshots of the employee’s computer across specific time intervals, ranging from once every few minutes to once every few hours. This allows an administrator or manager to see thumbnails of actual screens displayed during the work session. By consulting these screenshots, managers can make sure that each employee stays on track, and is using their computer only for work-appropriate tasks.
Project management / task tracking
Many remote employee monitoring software programs are equipped with basic project management capabilities to help track progress on various tasks. Although this is not meant to serve as a replacement for a truly dedicated project management software system, this functionality can be especially helpful for teams that are located across several different geographic regions, and that need some basic project management capabilities.
Advanced remote employee monitoring software features
Advanced features for many remote employee monitoring software packages are typically available through premium packages for an additional fee. This tiered pricing structure provides flexibility that allows the company to increase or decrease functionality over time, as needed.
Social media monitoring
This feature enables you to allows tracking of the social media sites used, and the time spent on each social media site as a function of total session time.
This feature allows a manager to follow email chains and review email activity on a per-project basis.
With real-time tracking, a manager or administrator can log into a remote worker’s ongoing session and watch screen activity live.
Keystroke logging allows for the capture of the actual text, data, or information typed into a keyboard. This data can be retrieved later for review.
Many companies have sensitive or proprietary information they wish to control. Print tracking shows which company documents are downloaded and printed remotely from company servers.
Advanced project management
Although basic project collaboration is a feature of almost all remote employee monitoring software packages, a premium version may be added to provide more advanced project tracking capabilities, such as invoicing, project budgeting and actual vs planned project results.
Important considerations when selecting remote employee monitoring software
We’ll discuss some important things to look for when selecting a remote employee monitoring system.
Remote monitoring programs are typically easy to install and usually have a very short learning curve for both users and administrators. Most systems are not intrusive to the user’s daily routine, running silently in the background after just a quick login for each session.
All remote employee monitoring programs have multiple features that can be turned on or off by the system administrator. This makes many of the systems modular, so they can easily be tailored to your company’s needs, ranging from the most basic systems to the most advanced.
Remote employee monitoring software is surprisingly low-cost, typically charging on a per-seat basis. Some systems offer rates as low as $5/month per seat. Prices can increase depending on the level of monitoring required, but all in all, the scale of cost tracks well with the increase in available features at higher tiers. As a result, a company doesn’t need to pay for features it doesn’t want or need, and can select a system that meets its requirements.
Many remote employee monitoring systems are managed on the cloud, while others, which allow more advanced monitoring, may need to integrate with certain server functionality within the company, such as email. Regardless of your choice, most system requirements for the installation at a terminal or laptop are minimal. Additionally, most systems are compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Maintenance required by the company’s system administrator is typically light. After each worker has downloaded the remote software client, and the administrator has specified permissions and the level of monitoring required for each employee, the weekly administrative time of the program can be as little as 3-5 minutes per seat per week to prepare and distribute reports to managers who wish to review their direct reports’ progress. Of course, as with cost, administrative time may vary depending on how many features are enabled and the reporting frequency required by the company.
Popular remote employee monitoring software systems
Here are a few of the most popular remote employee monitoring systems on the market today.
Among the basic remote employee monitoring software providers, Hivedesk is a simple, user-friendly system for those looking for a lightweight monitoring system. Hivedesk charges $5/seat per month, and it allows for timesheet and screenshot tracking, active time tracking, and team collaboration through project tracking. Hivedesk is priced month-to-month, and scaling up or down will immediately increase or decrease your cost without being locked into a long-term contract. Hivedesk operates silently, but not transparently, in the background of the user’s computer. Administrators can increase or decrease a user’s level of autonomy (for example, allowing or disallowing a user to delete a screenshot), and is highly customizable. The Hivedesk client is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux.
A little more advanced than Hivedesk, Toggl offers the same time, screen, and project tracking capabilities as Hivedesk. However, unlike Hivedesk, Toggl’s more advanced features are available through a tiered pricing system. The premium version has the same basic functionality, but includes real-time tracking for administrators, social media tracking, and additional advanced features for $18/seat per month. The enterprise version has additional features such as project audit reports, report automation (which will automatically generate and email reports on a regular basis), and integrations with other programs such as GitHub, Asana, and Basecamp at $48/seat per month. Toggl is also compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux.
Like Toggl, Timecamp offers tiered pricing to unlock premium features. Like both Toggl and Hivedesk, Timecamp's basic plan includes automatic screenshots, active vs. total time, etc. The basic plan of $5.25/user per month also allows for integration with external services such as Jira, Asana, and GitHub. You can also create tracking for billable vs non-billable hours in the basic version, a feature that is not available in Hivedesk. At $7.50/seat per month, the Pro plan unlocks the invoicing feature within the time tracking system, and allows for direct invoicing to clients. The system also includes timesheet approval for payroll administration. Timecamp offers a broader range and affordability compared to Toggl and is a much more feature-rich application compared to Hivedesk. As with both Hivedesk and Toggl, Timecamp is compatible with Windows, Mac, and Linux. Read our in-depth TimeCamp review.
Any company that is considering several remote employee monitoring systems should simply ask itself, “What do we really need for monitoring?” If the answer is simple tracking to ensure that remote employees are engaged and on task, then it makes sense to choose a system that meets those basic requirements, without any additional bells and whistles. This can provide you with a lightweight system that will only cost a few dollars per seat per month. Many systems offer tiered pricing with increasing levels of premium features, which makes it easy to upgrade your basic plan later on, if/when you discover that you eventually need more robust capabilities.
Company culture will help decide what level of autonomy -- or restriction -- you’ll want to place on remote workers. If your company is new to having remote employees, you may want to have robust monitoring capabilities, so that you can be sure that remote employees are delivering as much value as your on-premise employees. However, as time progresses, and you find that your remote employees are performing at a high level, you can consider relaxing some of these restrictions (for example, requiring fewer screenshots). Too much monitoring can be come off as intrusive (especially to full-time employees), and can demonstrate a lack of trust. You may ultimately want to give more autonomy to employees who have demonstrated their abilities to work remotely, while still enforcing monitoring for part-time or offshore employees.