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Bossware explained: Everything employees should know

There isn't a productivity-related metric that bossware doesn't track, so companies need clear goals for employee monitoring to cut through the noise.

How many times a day do you stand up from your computer? Do you know exactly how many times a day you or your co-workers go on social media and the exact time of day you or your co-workers logged on? Do you know who the most productive employee at your company is, and can you back it up with hundreds of citable data points and metrics about employee behavior? Want to ensure employees are communicating appropriately with clients and keeping confidential data safe?

If you want answers to these questions, you might consider bossware.

With the help of AI, bossware improves the accuracy of employee monitoring by providing detailed insights into employee behavior. This has both positive and negative consequences and has drawn some concern from lawmakers.

What is bossware?

Bossware is a type of software that an employer installs on an employee's device -- usually a computer or mobile phone. It is sometimes also called employee monitoring software, workplace analytics software, tattleware, automatic time tracking or productivity monitoring software.

Employers can use it to monitor employee performance, avoid data leaks and watch out for internal threats. It is used in companies of all sizes. It may be designated software or be a feature of a broader software package. Team collaboration tools, such as Microsoft Teams or Google Workspace, have employee monitoring features, such as presence monitoring, which displays an availability status indicating whether or not the user is online.

The term bossware can have a negative connotation; it often implies excessive nonconsensual employee surveillance. It is used in criticism of overly intrusive employee monitoring tools that are sometimes likened to spyware.

Bossware and employee monitoring software became increasingly prevalent during the COVID-19 pandemic when employers needed a way to monitor remote workers, often across different channels and time zones.

This kind of surveillance software can have negative consequences. An employee used to being surveilled might not develop the skills to be productive without the constant pressure of surveillance. An employer collecting excess employee data might end up using that data to inform an automated job decision, such as firing an employee based on their inability to achieve productivity standards. They might also collect sensitive data that gets leaked or otherwise exposed indirectly -- for example, a password recorded by a keylogger present in bossware.

Being monitored beyond what the employee knows and consents to diminishes trust. Bossware might also incentivize toxic productivity, which is constant action and engagement with the device instead of taking time to think. Toxic productivity can ultimately contribute to burnout and decreased well-being.

Still, bossware used appropriately can yield productivity gains, as well as guard against insider threats and human error risks.

How does bossware work?

Bossware collects data about the employee by continuously monitoring them through their device and analyzing the data, sometimes using AI to derive more accurate insights from the heap of data the software collects. This software can use those insights to analyze, rank and report on employee productivity. It is most often used to confirm time, attendance and productivity. Some bossware creates a daily productivity score for each employee.

Bossware can see almost anything a user does. High-level activity monitoring looks at what apps and websites a user visits and how often. However, bossware has other features, including the following:

  • Keylogging. The software records every keystroke made on the computer, even deleted ones.
  • Email monitoring. The software records everything entered in an email client.
  • Console commands. The software can record every command the user enters into the console.
  • Productivity tracking. The software can show productivity metrics for each monitored employee.
  • Screen record and capture. The software records everything on the user's screen and can take screenshots.
  • Mouse activity monitoring. The software records mouse activity.
  • Audio recording. The software can record audio through the device's microphone.
  • Alerts. The software can be configured to alert the administrator when a specified data type appears on the employee machine.
  • User notification. The software can notify the user when they've breached a company policy or when the administrator wants the user to know they are being monitored.
  • Lockout. The software can lock the user out of their computer if suspicious activity is detected.
  • Camera recording. The software can record the user through their device's webcam.
  • Social media monitoring. The software can see what social platform the user is on, how they're using it and for how long.
  • Time tracking. The software can track the amount of time and breaks in the time a user is online.
  • Browsing history. The software can record and display user browsing history, even incognito tabs.
  • App usage. The software can tell the administrator which application the user accesses and when.
  • Chat recording. The software can record instant messaging chats.
  • Silent mode. The software can be installed and accessed in a way that is invisible to the user.
  • Document scanning. The software uses optical character recognition to scan user documents for data.
  • Location tracking. The software can monitor the geographic location of the device.
  • Remote control. The software can give the admin complete control over the user's device as if they are physically using it.
  • Search. The software lets administrators search for a specific type of data created by employees.

Types of bossware

There are two types of bossware categories:

  1. Visible monitoring. The worker can see that the software is watching them. The worker may have the option to toggle the software on or off or delete certain data collected about them.
  2. Silent monitoring. The worker cannot see that software is monitoring them. It can be installed remotely and without alerting the employee.

Many bossware products have both visible and silent options.

Why bossware is on the rise

The resume-building company StandOut CV took surveys of 50 employee monitoring tools in 2021 and again in 2023 to gather statistics about employee monitoring. It reported that the number of companies using this technology is expected to increase and has increased since the middle of the pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic initiated a rise in bossware as more employees worked remotely and employers needed a way to monitor them. The number of employers using monitoring software doubled during the pandemic, according to Gartner. Business leaders cited various reasons to use the software, including the following:

  • Ensure work is completed.
  • Discover challenges.
  • Measure the effectiveness of remote work technology.
  • Improve processes.

According to the StandOut CV report, the features that have increased the most post-pandemic are location and GPS tracking, as well as video monitoring features, which have increased about 45%.

One reason that monitoring software is on the rise might be that employee behavior data is an increasingly valuable commodity for strengthening against insider threats, preventing data loss and optimizing business processes.

Is bossware legal?

It's complicated, but the short answer is yes. In the U.S., employers are not legally required to tell employees that they are using surveillance tools. The tools are usually installed on company-owned devices. Employees using employer-owned PCs generally don't have a right to privacy. The White House, in collaboration with Senate Democratic leaders, is formulating a bill to set specific boundaries on the use of these tools.

The bill is called the Stop Spying Bosses Act, which would require employers to notify employees of monitoring technology. Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) introduced the act.

Several states, including Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware and New York, have introduced notification laws that require employers to tell employees that they are being monitored and that the employer has the right to monitor them.

Casey also introduced the No Robot Bosses Act, which would prohibit employers from relying on employment-related decisions made exclusively by algorithms.

How to detect bossware

If an employee suspects they are being surveilled, they should talk to their employer about it. There also might be information about employee monitoring in employee manuals or onboarding materials. If the employee is uncomfortable asking around or suspects secret surveillance, there are other ways to try to see if their computer has bossware on it through some entry-level snooping.

Steps to see if there are monitoring tools on a corporate laptop include the following:

  • Check the task manager. Is there a piece of software running in the background that looks like a piece of bossware? It may be difficult to detect and appear as a string of random numbers or letters. Other software isn't detectable at all via the task manager.
  • Download antispyware software. Some bossware makes administrators configure antivirus software to allow the monitoring software to be installed because it looks like spyware or malware to the defense program.
  • Monitor outgoing internet traffic. Free internet traffic monitoring software enables employees to see activity that could be monitoring software.

    These techniques are not guaranteed to work and would take a lot of sleuthing on the part of the average employee. Most bossware does not work at the system or user level, making it hard to detect if not an admin.

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