By Emma Hatton of RNZ

Sales of employee monitoring software have skyrocketed since the country went into lockdown, with tech companies reporting a 300 per cent increase for New Zealand customers.

The software, which can track what websites employees visit, take screenshots throughout the day, and track productivity through mouse and keyboard movements, is marketed as a helping hand for managers, who no longer have eyes over office-based staff.

US-based Hubstaff co-founder Jared Brown said a third of New Zealand customers came onboard via free trials in March.

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He said the most popular product was time-tracking, to keep tabs on when a worker logged in and out.

However, Hubstaff does offer more advanced features like screenshotting, URL tracking and tracking activity levels based on keyboard and mouse usage.

Another US-based firm, Veriato, offering similar features also reported a three-fold growth in New Zealand since March.

Chief marketing officer Pete Nourse said it was a way to give back the visibility managers had over staff when they were working in an office.

"They just don't know what's going on within their company any more and they're looking for policies, procedures and tools to navigate this new normal and that's where employee monitoring software can help."

Veriato also offers a dashboard to compare workers based on their productivity.

'Recipe for resentment'

Council of Trade Unions (CTU) president said Richard Wagstaff such features were likely to be counter-productive.

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"We think there's a far better way to manage your staff, motivate, to keep in touch with your staff and to get a good working relationship.

"Low-trust surveillance tools are not the way to do that. They are really a recipe for resentment, low performance and I think says something about the quality of management."

Both Brown and Norse said it was important employers were open with employees about the purpose of the software.

The companies Teramind and EfficientLab, which operate the Work Examiner and Controlio products, also reported a 300 per cent increase.

Wagstaff said the growth of such surveillance software was alarming, but not surprising because the culture of New Zealand work tended to be low trust.

He was also concerned about privacy issues.

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Auckland University's business school associate professor and privacy expert Gehan Gunasekara said that as long as there was open and transparent communication between employers and employees they were likely complying with the law.

However, he said employers needed to do their homework when it came to new technology.

"Often [with] these technologies, the employer themselves may not know the full functionality of the technology.

"The more sophisticated technology becomes, the more diligent employers have to be ... they can't just off-source everything to technology."

He said employers should engage an independent auditor, and ensure the privacy impact statement was updated each time the software was changed or upgraded.

Business NZ employment relations manager Paul Mackay said monitoring may be helpful, but only if it was for a good reason, and employees were on board.

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"I suspect there are some companies going 'my workforce is all at home and I don't know anything about them therefore I want to know something'.

"That's a panic reaction and I would rather see a measured response."

The Office of the Privacy Commissioner has so far not received any requests for information, or complaints, regarding employee monitoring software.

Both the CTU and Business NZ said more needed to be done to understand the software, particularly as more people began to work remotely.