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The Rise of “Bossware” in Monitoring Employee Productivity

The common practice of “MBWA” has been replaced by “MBWO”

It has always been the job of managers to monitor and maximize employee productivity. When everyone was working on-site, that was an easy task by employing what is commonly referred to as “management by walking around” (aka, “MBWA”). Now, with an increasing number of remote employees, many companies are employing the practice of “MBWO”—“management by watching online.”

For this, a growing number of companies have turned to software, referred to as “bossware,” also known as "tattleware.”

The use of software to monitor employees' online time and activity during “work hours” can include tracking websites visited and apps used on a computer. It can also track movement of an employee’s mouse and keystrokes, and some (particularly creepy) software can even watch you and your surroundings through your computer’s camera.

A survey of 1,250 US employers last September by review site found that 60 percent of companies with remote employees are using work monitoring software of some type, most commonly to track web browsing and application use. And almost nine out of 10 of the companies said they had terminated workers using the information garnered with this monitoring software.

There are some upsides to “bossware”: it can help employers identify training gaps in their staff or give them insight into whether certain employees may benefit from additional incentives or coaching. In roles that consist mostly of data entry or help-desk customer service, for instance, where job performance is largely dependent on the number of an individual’s data entries or customer response time, “bossware” can be an invaluable tool.

But, as more employers adopt these tools, more employees (both remote and in-office) feel that the software is warping the foundations of time and trust in their work lives. For some, especially those in certain professional capacities, there are plenty of reasons why an employee might think that “bossware” doesn’t make sense for judging their performance.

One remote employee, in the marketing department at an engineering firm that has deployed “bossware,” comments, “Some of the work I do is not even online. It’s spent with the notebook next to my computer, taking meeting notes from a (telephone) conference call, reading through hard-copy RFPs, or outlining a proposal on paper before I start to work on it on my computer. While I am actively working, it’s not all necessarily online work. How do I get credit for that? Am I getting penalized because my job entails more than just 100 percent online work?”

As these practices have spread, so has resistance to what labor advocates call, “one of the most significant expansions of employer power in generations.” TikTok videos offer tips on outsmarting the systems, including a “mouse jiggler,” a device that creates the appearance of activity.

The fundamental debate, however, should not be about whether bosses have a right to monitor employee productivity. Bosses have an obligation to monitor employee productivity. If they don’t do this, it is their own performance that is not acceptable. Productivity improvements over the long term are fundamentally required for any business just to maintain profitability, never mind increase it. If companies award annual merit/cost-of-living increases to employees and do not increase productivity, profit margins will be squeezed. However, the measures of productivity and performance need to be tailored to the job and expected/needed results. “Bossware” is simply one tool in the toolkit.

“Bossware” data should be secondary or tertiary to other measures of productivity and performance, and the data should be used by employers to try to understand the “why,” when other business-related metrics are suggesting an employee is struggling to achieve the desired results.

The fundamental debate then becomes: When does over-reliance on “bossware” as the primary basis for an employee’s performance say more about the manager’s performance and company culture than it does about the employee’s performance? Should it be applied across the board, just to suggest an “egalitarian” adoption of the policy, despite the job function? How should information gained from “bossware” be used?

We welcome your thoughts/comments below.


Greg Mickelson is the Managing Principal of Standish Executive Search, a New England-based firm that advises business owners, executives and boards who are positioning their companies for accelerated growth, change or succession.

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Diane Boulanger
Diane Boulanger
24 jan. 2023

While I agree that a boss's job is to monitor employees' productivity, are keystrokes and mouse movements real job metrics? Or is their end-product/meeting deliverable deadlines a more accurate measure?

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