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Advisory Firm Owner: Do You Really Want to Be Big Brother?

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You might have seen the Jan. 24 Forbes article: “Keep Employees Away from Cat Videos with Time Tracking Software” by J.J. Colao. My clients certainly did.

It’s about a new computer “employee tracking” tool called DeskTime, which sits inside employees’ computers, recording the time they spend on various applications and websites. DeskTime allows “users” (meaning firm owners or managers) to designate which apps are “productive” (think Excel or Centerpiece), unproductive (e.g., YouTube, Facebook and iTunes) or neutral. The program then produces daily charts with analytics showing what programs were running on each employee’s computer, for how long, and the total time spent “productively” and not so much. 

DeskTime was developed by the Draugiem Group of Latvia in 2011 for tracking its own employees. It now has 12,000 users in 90 countries, mostly “outsourcing” companies. The cost is $9 per user. There are competitors: Toggl with 350,000 users; and RescueTime, which markets itself as a “personal productivity tool” as opposed to an “employee tracking service.” Forbes calls these watchdog programs “the gritty business of employee accountability,” explaining that: “Overseers and floor managers don’t make sense in the information age, so digital supervisors are taking their place. In some ways, it’s a wonder it’s taken so long.” I’m not so sure. 

Because my clients have been asking about DeskTime after the Forbes article came out, I decided to conduct a little 20-day “research project” with my own staff to gauge their reaction to the program. Only I didn’t tell them it was just for research. 

Here’s what I did: I set up a DeskTime account, invited my staff by email to begin using it, asked them to login each morning and log out at the end of the work day.

After the email went out, nearly 10 minutes later I had one of my employees standing in my “nerdery” (the name they have given to my office) asking if I felt like she wasn’t being productive. Twenty minutes later, I got a call from one of my virtual employees who wanted to inform me this software was “completely against our culture.” Just sending the email caused such an uproar that I had to conduct a staff meeting just to explain why I thought it might be valuable. Based on my own employees’ reaction, how do you think your employees are going to react? I guarantee they will respond with the same eye roll.

However, from my perspective as an owner the results were quite intriguing. It showed me where my employees were going on their computers in real time, what they were doing online, and how long they were hanging out there. I knew when they were on Facebook, LinkedIn, ESPN Sports and shopping on JCrew, oh, for my birthday present I am sure! For a micromanager, this software is a dream comes true! The only other potentially interesting use for it is tracking when employees come into work and when they left. One of my employees clocked 52 hours in one week, which I would have never noticed without the software. Other than that, you don’t really get a very good picture of what they did during the work day.

Consequently, in my view, DeskTime is little more than New Age time clock where employees punch in when they turn on their computers, and punch out when they shut them down. It is a tool, albeit a digital one, for exactly the kind of micromanagement by advisory firm owners that creates low morale, high employee turnover and, not surprisingly (to everyone but these owners), low productivity and slow firm growth. When managers start clockwatching like sixth grade school teachers, they send the clear message that they don’t trust their employees to get their jobs done on their own—like school children. How much of a team spirit or sense of firm ownership do you think that’s likely to foster? 

In our work with advisory firms, we’ve found that owner-advisors who take just the opposite approach have phenomenally more successful firms: spelling out exactly what each employee is responsible for, giving them all the training and the tools to enable them to do that job, and then standing back and letting them do their job, their way, in their own time. When owner-advisors let their employees know they are there for them, they discover that their employees will be there for their firm and their firm owner—day in and day out. Without time clocks. 

At least the CEO of DeskTime’s creator notes that their system draws the line at recording employee keystrokes or taking random screenshots, while some of its competitors do not. I tell my clients to ask themselves: Is this really the kind of firm you want to go to work for everyday? 

In conclusion, I feel it only fair to publicly apologize to my employees. 

Dear Angie Herbers Inc. Employees: 

I apologize (somewhat) for using you as human test subjects without you knowing. I would like to remind you that my OCD tendencies to research everything is precisely why you ridiculously named my office “the nerdery.” However, while I reserve the right to conduct research again on you, I promise I will never make you raise your hand to use the bathroom. Think of it this way: your pain and suffering may have saved a lot of employees from unnecessary torture. 

With Love,

Your Boss

(I know, we are not allowed to use the word “Boss,” but for writing purposes it just sounded better. And for more, I invite you to read my related 2012 blog, How to Communicate: Using the Wrong Words at the Right Time.)