Time-management software not Big Brother: vendors

Ann Bednarz looks at productivity measurement applications

Ever wonder how often 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 is 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 cofounder 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 are 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."

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.

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.

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 recognise 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 website.

Employees can also see feedback from managers as they complete tasks, which has proven popular with companies that have a distributed workforce.

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

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," CEO Tony 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 website 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 example, LinkedIn might be designated productive for a group of marketing personnel while deemed distracting for a group of engineers.

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