Pay no attention to that widget recording your every move

Cloud-based monitoring software tracks your productivity and measures how you compare to other employees.

Ever wonder how much of a time suck Bejeweled is? Or how often your legitimate work-related research on the Web deteriorates into recreational browsing? Now there is software that will tell not only you, but also your boss and your coworkers.

We're not talking about secretive spying software, though there is plenty of that for employers to use. No, there's a new breed of corporate monitoring software that watches what employees do during the workday - without being stealthy. These in-your-face widgets report just how much or how little you're getting done.

Most people who try out the software are shocked, says Joe Hruska, CEO and co-founder of RescueTime, which makes such monitoring software. "It's very surprising to people how little, on average, gets done that's productive during an eight-hour workday," he says. "If you're doing four to five hours of productive work on a computer, you're in the top percentile. It is pretty rare that we see anybody go over five hours a day of productive time on a computer."

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RescueTime was originally conceived as a consumer product designed to help people track what they did during the day, typically so they could bill time to clients, says Hruska, whose background includes IT consulting. "It wasn't intended as a replacement for a time-tracking system or to monitor people."

Early trials showed people were interested not only in what they were doing during the day, but also tracking how productive they were. The goal was to get that information automatically, without any user effort. "That was our key tenet: Understand this info with no data entry," Hruska says. "There's nothing more distracting than having to stop being productive and then go fill out a timesheet."

A newcomer in the field is RWave Software, which is pursuing a task-oriented approach with its newly launched workforce analytics and productivity software. Called RWorks, the cloud-based software can automatically monitor what a user is doing and compare that activity to the tasks and projects the user is supposed to be working on.

"People can set tasks themselves, or have their managers set their tasks, and RWorks will automatically track the progress against those tasks," says Tony Redmond, founder and CEO of the start-up. "At the end of the day, you can see the tasks you've been assigned and the actual amount of time you've spent being productive on those tasks."

A pie chart shows at a glance the breakdown of your day - so there's no lying to yourself.

The ideal RWorks user is someone who has discrete tasks to do, but it's useful for knowledge workers, too. If an employee were assigned the task of writing a marketing assessment of IBM, for instance, the software could recognize that any time spent working on a document called "IBM marketing assessment," is related to the project, as is time spent browsing IBM's investor relations Web site.

Employees can also see feedback from managers as they complete tasks, which has proven popular with companies that have a distributed workforce, including teleworkers. "It allows teleworkers to get a feeling for how well they're doing. At the same time, the people who have responsibility for managing the teleworkers get an idea of how their projects are going," Redmond says.

In addition to analyzing what employees are doing, RWorks in a future version will be able to feed that information to project management plans. "We will be able to show a project plan on screen in our own system, and we're also going to allow people to export tasks and import tasks to and from Microsoft Project," Redmond says.

Because the RWorks system records actual task progress, rather than estimations, the data in project plans will be more realistic, Redmond says. (Also in the works are mobile applications that will allow RWorks to monitor tasks done on a smartphone.)

At thepurplepatch, a business consulting firm in Ireland, RWorks helps employees keep track of off-site client work without getting bogged down by manual recordkeeping.

"We spend a large amount of time in front of clients, which was easily measurable, but we wanted a method of recording the amount of time we spent behind the scenes working for those clients to ensure that we were getting accurately compensated for our time," says Damian Donlon, who heads up the firm.

For Donlon, the software also provides an easy view of what's going on throughout his dispersed organization.

"As I travel from meeting to meeting, I can see the exact status of projects and tasks for all clients without having to explicitly ask. I no longer have to rely on a third party telling me that something is done, when in fact it may not have been," he says. "In addition, I can see how long the tasks are taking, those that are behind schedule and the expected date they will be completed based on actual time spent to date."

Big Brother or a helpful reminder?

RescueTime uses crowdsourcing methods to categorize which activities are productive and which aren't. End users designate how productive or unproductive a certain Web site is, for instance, and when enough people consistently assign the same ranking, RescueTime begins to apply that ranking by default.

Today RescueTime offers both a free version of its software for individual use and a paid version that includes more detailed reporting. For instance, instead of simply reporting that someone spent two hours using Microsoft Word, the paid version will also track which documents that person used. Other features built into the paid version include alerting, goal-setting, and the ability to block distracting applications or Web sites for a period of time.

Corporate RescueTime users can track their time and productivity individually and as part of a group. "We built the ability for people to see how they're doing compared to members of their team or, depending on their security levels, how they're doing against the average of their team," RescueTime's Hruska says.

An employee on a 10-person team might notice he is spending 50% more time on social networking and unproductive tasks than the average team member. Obviously, a manager may notice this trend too, and strongly suggest the employee dial back the habit.

Hruska sees RescueTime as an alternative to simply blocking access to recreational Web sites and applications. It gives employees some control over their time, while still making it clear there should be a cap on unproductive activities.

"Numerous studies have shown that allowing some amount of leisure surfing during a workday actually increases productivity," Hruskra says, "so why not just manage how much time people spend doing that?"

While employees may resent feeling spied upon, both RWave and RescueTime see their software as benefitting employees, who can use it to demonstrate how much work they're accomplishing. The vendors have also worked to give end users some control over how the software runs.

With RWorks, a desktop dashboard lets users indicate if they're working, in a meeting, on the phone, or on personal time. "The person is nominating whether they're working or not," Redmond says. "If they click that they're on personal time, we absolutely stop tracking everything they're doing."

Similarly, RescueTime users can pause the application during lunch and delete certain activities. They can also override an automated ranking. If a Web site is useful for one person's job, but recreational for most, the user can apply his own designation. Corporate clients can apply designations across groups of end users. For instance, LinkedIn might be designated productive for a group of marketing personnel while deemed distracting for a group of engineers.

Neither program wants to be seen as a sneaky spying tool. "We would absolutely never want to have a stealth mode," Redmond says. "RWorks is very overt about what it's doing. It shows people exactly what statistics it sees. We make it very, very obvious."

At thepurplepatch, users see the benefits of the monitoring software, says Donlon - who adds that RWorks has shown the remote team to be significantly more productive than expected.

"I thought [employees] might be reluctant to use it, but when they realized it was a great tool for helping them to become more efficient and productive, they bought into it," Donlon says. "It didn't take long for them to realize that it wasn't designed so that it's watching everything they do and they can decide to take a break anytime, so they have no problems."

RescueTime, too, emphasizes its openness.

"We don't like being compared to Big Brother, that is absolutely not what RescueTime is trying to be," Hruska says. There was a time when RescueTime could be installed without employees' knowledge, but that capability has since been disabled.

"We did bend under pressure from some of our larger corporate clients and allowed them to do what we call the 'stealth install,'" Hruska says. "We did that for a very short time and found that it wasn't working for us."

There are plenty of other products that monitor employees' activities surreptitiously, capturing keystrokes and tracking activities such as application use, document downloads and website visits.

"I understand the need for enterprises to watch and monitor that and protect their intellectual property and data. But that's not what we are," Hruska says.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.