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Web monitoring software helps keep employees honest

Web monitoring software can block use of Facebook and HBO at work, but also raises privacy concerns.

When a remote web developer at Coalition Technologies wasted a lot of time watching films on his work computer,...

the company's software was watching.

Coalition, an online design and marketing firm, uses ActivTrak software to monitor employees' Internet use on company computers. Coalition is among a growing number of companies that are using web monitoring software.

ActivTrak provided Coalition a report on the web developer's computer use, and revealed the reason his projects were often late, said Joel Gross, CEO of the company. The employee, who knew ActivTrak was installed, was later terminated after he failed to improve, Gross said.

"We looked back at what he was doing," Gross said. "He would watch movie after movie after movie during work hours."

Employers may have good reason to use web monitoring software.

In a 2014 survey by Salary.com, 42% of about 750 respondents said online activities were the biggest overall time-wasting activity at work, including 26% browsing the Internet, 12% returning emails and 4% using social media.

In another 2014 survey, the Human Capital Institute found that 65% of organizations have a policy for blocking web sites at work and 60% said it was effective at eliminating workplace distractions.

However, web monitoring software raises concerns for an advocate for civil liberties in the workplace.

Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, said Internet monitoring is a growing trend and already used by a majority of employers. He said it can be devastating to employees' privacy, since people often search the Internet for personal reasons such as advice on illnesses or problems with children or a marriage.

"If you were trying to build a picture window into people's private lives, you couldn't find a better way than looking at their Internet access," Maltby said. "That may not be what employers are trying to do, but that is what they are doing."

Nonetheless, vendors are jockeying for the business. Other companies that sell web monitoring software include SolarWinds, Websense, Time Doctor, CurrentWare, StaffCop, NetVizor and SpectorSoft.

Chris Dixon, CIO of Linden Care, a mail-order pharmacy, said he uses ActivTrak to block certain websites including Facebook, Twitter, HBO and Match.com. Dixon said ActivTrak is easy to use for managers -- one reason he selected the product.

Recently, ActivTrak caught an employee streaming HB0 on a workstation, he said. "I went through and I blocked HBO websites," he said. "That will never happen again."

Software ensures integrity of remote employees

Dixon said ActivTrak is also installed on the company's remote server as a way to ensure the integrity of employees who work from home. "Not everybody is honest and you can't be looking over someone's shoulder every minute," he said.

The company purchased the product about 10 months ago for an annual subscription fee of $2,853 for 100 licenses.

Dixon said the popularity of web monitoring software is a good trend, especially because of a new generation that grew up with social media. "While they are working, they have to realize this is a work environment," Dixon said. "You can't keep just going on Facebook."

Coalition Technologies primarily uses ActivTrak to view screen shots of activities on computers used by about 30 of its 73 employees, Gross said. A manager can select a date, click on go and the software will show all the screen shots on an employee's computer for that date, he said.

ActivTrak can provide a different report for an employee's computer that shows a list of websites and how much time was spent on them. The software runs in the background whenever a computer is operating and is not intrusive, he said. "It's not something with pop-ups, dings and alarms."

Gross said ActivTrak picks up on a lot of minor infractions, many involving too much use of Facebook on company time. He does not use the software to block websites because employees must use many sites for online marketing.

Gross said ActivTrak is very useful for identifying employees who abuse the Internet while at work, and helps keep employees productive.

The software also benefits employees because it enables the company to trust them to work remotely, and it sends a message that the company cares about their work, he said.

Coalition uses separate software from Time Doctor to monitor the Apple computers some other employees use, he said.

Time Doctor can be turned on and off and can be a little frustrating because users must click to get it running, and it has pop-up reminders, Gross said. ActivTrak just announced support for Apple's Mac OS in January, after Coalition had moved ahead with Time Doctor.

A big benefit is that ActivTrak acts as a deterrent, because employees know it is on their computers and they understand the rules, he said.

The software can also be an employee's advocate, he added.

"If an employee is three days late on an assignment, we can check it out and see that he was working on developing a site and was making progress but was running into bugs," Gross said. "It gives employees a little bit of protection when they are late on work."

Denis Pombriant, an analyst and founder of Beagle Research Group, said he did not believe Internet monitoring by employers will increase in the future.

"The work-life balance is blurring and it is moving to something more accommodating especially to younger employees," Pombriant said in an email. "Businesses that don't appreciate this will find it harder to hire great people who don't want to be micromanaged."

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