RescueTime for Employee Monitoring – What it means for RescueTime

Note: this blog post was prompted by this tweet — we’ve also gotten an email or two about the messaging change.  I’d meant to get this blog post out last week, but the release happened a few hours after I’d boarded the plan for my first vacation in a few years.  Apologies for the delay!

Last week we did a few dramatic things in terms of our business offering.  First off, our “marketing” site (the one new users see before they sign up– if you’re already a RescueTime user, you’ll have to log out to see it) is now much more business focused, with the individual offering significantly de-emphasized.  We also introduced a new product, RescueTime Pulse (employee monitoring software), which allows managers to see how employees are spending their time without the employees being able to see or control the monitoring software.  This is in contrast with our existing flagship offering (RescueTime Empower), which allows employees to see their own data and have some control over what is monitored and when.

We wanted to take a few minutes to talk about our thinking behind the new offering and what it means for RescueTime.

Our Thinking behind the Changes

  • The biggest reason we’re offering the new restricted version is because people wanted it. A restricted mode offering was literally the most requested feature from our business customers.  RescueTime is a software startup, which means that our first mandate is to build something people want…  Which may or may not necessarily map to what we THINK they should want.
  • Related, the site being more business-focused is a reflection of the economy in which we live.  Revenue and profit are king and we can’t expect to focus on free/consumer audiences forever.  While we will always serve that individuals, we thought the site should reflect our focus on business customers.
  • The restricted offering helps us understand the value of our “in the open” offering, RescueTime Empower, which offers open and collaborative business time management software. To date, we’ve been able to show that using RescueTime in this way improves productive behavior by 9% over two months of use…  But we’ve never been able to understand how employees behave when they AREN’T using RescueTime “in the open”.  A restricted version will give us this data, and will help us understand the TRUE effect of our open offering.  9% is a pretty impressive number (annually, it can literally represents hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of productive time for even a 10-person team).  But we think we’re about to expose a much more dramatic number– and we’re excited about that!

What it means for RescueTime

  • We will continue to serve new and existing individual customers.  It’s a rapidly growing audience for us (we love you guys), but free users don’t pay the bills and we don’t want to bury people in ads to make money.
  • It gives us the opportunity to help business customers change how they think about employee monitoring and time management.  When you want to change the world, sometimes you have to meet it halfway and drag it the rest of the way.  Armed with real data, we can tell our customers who choose the employee monitoring route what they and their team could achieve if they embraced a more collaborative approach.
  • Revenue = runway.   Again, we’re a small and young company who is trying to change how businesses and individuals think about time tracking.  That’s not going to happen overnight.   We truly believe that it IS going to happen, and this step helps insure that we’re going to be around when it does!

We still believe what we’ve always believed at RescueTime.  That time is a resource that should be tracked in the same way that any valuable resource is tracked.  That tracking time should be easy and shouldn’t interfere with being productive.  That managers and business owners should be able to see this data in aggregate to help them understand and guide their business.  That employees and individuals should be able to own their own time management, see their own time tracking data, and see how they compare to their peers.

As always, we welcome your comments (either drop a comment on this post or drop us an email at

11 Comments on “RescueTime for Employee Monitoring – What it means for RescueTime”

  1. Sean Johnson says:

    People want heroin too. That doesn’t mean the best thing to do might be to chose not to sell it to them.

    I’m disappointed in you guys. My complete thoughts are here:


  2. Tony Wright says:

    @sean (responded on your blog, too)

    We still have strong opinions that there is a “right” way to use a tool like RescueTime in the workplace (or at least a BEST way), but we’ve moved to be a bit more agnostic in terms of pushing our beliefs onto other people– we’re not going tell them how to run their businesses. It’s our hope that we can meet them halfway (but NOT move so far as to screen capture, scrape emails, grab IM conversations, etc) and then have the luxury to persuade them that there is a better way (with hard data showing that it IS a better way). But if they aren’t our customer, we don’t have that luxury.

    The good news is that, of the 75% of workplaces that monitor employees, 80% of ’em disclose the fact, which we feel is the right thing to do (data from: ). Every customer that we’ve talked about this was more interested in limiting employee controls to the software than they are in “stealth”. There’s a really good essay on the ethics here at: — It outlines the case for and against pretty well– the bit that’s REALLY worth reading is the “Some Possibilities for Common Ground” section. To be clear– we’re not monitoring in the way that most of these articles discuss– we’re just logging time (no email/IM scraping of any kind).

    We feel that employers are entitled to ask how employees are spending time– and we feel that they are entitled to the truth when they DO ask. When used properly, RescueTime can provide this data without requiring the manager to hover and the employee to do a lot of timekeeping– so we think that’s a win. With transparency, people generally spend less time at work, but more time on the things that they identify as productive– we’ve got piles of data to back that up. RescueTime in the workplace helps people SPEND LESS TIME AT WORK.

    Employers who want to monitor folks are going to find a vendor. If they find us, they’ll continue to receive data nudging them in a more collaborative direction. If they don’t, they probably won’t. We think that allowing this direction ultimately will allow us to do good things in the workplace. And yes, part of that is just plain financial survival. We can’t push our agenda of collaborative/open time management if we don’t make money any more than Google can give away search without showing ads that look like search results (aside: when I tell my mom to click on the first result in a search, do you think she clicks on the result or the barely-not-white ad that looks like a result right above it?).

    Anyhoo– we do appreciate the feedback (and we love BubbleTimer!).

  3. Sean Johnson says:


    Thank you for responding.

    RescueTime is a very neat tool. I have no issue with it at all as a tool for personal productivity improvement. It’s a good tool.

    And when it comes to an employer putting it on an employee’s computer for the employee to use and benefit from, I don’t have an ethical issue with it either. Assuming the employee knows about it and agrees to it.

    I do think it’s dumb for the employer to want to see the data or care about it. That is early 1900’s industrial revolution era thinking to obsess over how your employees are spending every minute. You get what you measure. What is it that an employer wants? Happy customers? Profitable customers? Then measure that. You WILL get more of whatever it is you chose to measure.

    All you will get by measuring how many minutes employees spend in one application vs. another is that employees will spend more time with the desired application open. Maybe mindlessly stroking a key every now and then to keep RescueTime happy. That will not get you happy and profitable customers. And what you won’t get is the innovative employee figuring out that he can do his job better by using twitter than he can by That kind of innovation will be stifled.

    But we are not even talking about whether it is a good idea or not for employers to care about the data. You’ve gone beyond that and are now selling it for employers to install on employees computers and then not let the employees see the data? Why? Why would you agree to that feature? What good can possibly come from not letting the employee see the data? Why are employers asking for that? It strikes me as bizarre and shady.

    Thank you,

  4. Tony Wright says:

    @sean I *vehemently* disagree with the value of the data for employers/managers. I dunno if you’ve managed folks before, but if a team gets much bigger than 5-10 people, it’s REALLY hard to have any clue what/how much they are doing. How people spend their time certainly does NOT equal productivity/accomplishment in a lot of cases, but it’s certainly correlative. And it’s also indicative of engagement. There are lots of reasons why an employee might work only an hour a day. They may hate their job. They may not have enough work to do. They may be buried in stupid meetings. They may hate their boss. They may be lazy. They may be confused about their work. Their computer might crash 10 times per day. As managers, we count on employees to be assertive and speak up in these situations– but they DON’T.

    I’d posit that how employees choose to spend their time is a leading indicator for the metrics that you REALLY care about (profit, lines of code, happy employees, happy customers). If your team (or a single person on it) is spending 10% less time in the tools they should be using this month than last month, you have a problem. And it might not be one that you’d notice without RescueTime, because an engaged knowledge worker looks approximately the same as a disengaged one (especially at larger companies).

    I WOULD totally agree that it’s generally dumb for an employer to look at individual data on a day-to-day basis– but then again, most micromanagement is dumb (though some employees probably need/deserve micromanagement).

    For managers, RescueTime is a tool that presents data– and stupid managers can do stupid things with data. They could mistakenly assume that time spent has a lockstep relationship with output. It doesn’t. They could get bent out of shape because an employee spends a day surfing the web. That’s not always a big deal if it’s not habitual or interfering with critical deadlines.

    On the flipside, smart managers can do smart things with data, and that’s what keeps up chugging along. 🙂

  5. Sean Johnson says:

    Fair enough Tony. I think the correlation between time spent in applications and effectiveness on the job is loose enough as to be dangerously misleading in many cases, and you do not. You see it as a leading indicator of things that matter.

    We can simply agree to disagree on this. I’m even willing to defer a bit on this to you on this point since you clearly have more experience with this through your customers and I’ve never led a large team of dozens of people.

    You do seem to be ducking my question however. What reason is there to not allow the employee to see the RescueTime data? In fact, you tout this aspect of the solution, that they are not allowed to see it, as a feature in your marketing copy. This is what creeped me out and drove me to write today.

    I’ve asked you this twice directly and both times you’ve not given an answer. I’m not trying to be tricky or clever or win any points here. I honestly can’t think of any reason why an employer would want this that doesn’t turn out to be slimy, shady and nefarious. Maybe there is one and you’ll let me know. I hope so.


  6. Tony Wright says:

    Heh, it’s not purposeful ducking– I just latch onto the stuff that I think it interesting and stop typing when I realize how long my comment is getting! 🙂

    Here are a few off-the-cuff scenarios:

    – In a high turnover scenario (say, 200 low-cost and high-turnover employees) you might care more about identifying outliers on the low end of productivity/engagement than you care about nurturing productivity in a team that is going to have 100% turnover in 6 months. I’m not a big fan of this “catch the deadbeat” way of using RescueTime, but it’s not an uncommon use case and there are plenty of employees who try to skate by doing no work at all.

    – In a big company (1000+ employees), a manager wants to look at macro-trends in your organization. You buy some expensive productivity training and you want to measure the before and after state of time management without having users’ behaviors being effected by seeing their own data.

    – You want to use RescueTime Empower (the open version), but you’d like to get a baseline of what behavior is like without it so employees can see what things were like before RescueTime.

    – You run a computer lab at a school and you want to see which tools people are using in the lab to know what software licenses to renew.

    – A software vendor just doubled their prices and you’re waffling on whether your business should upgrade/renew. You suspect that your 750 person team isn’t using it much and want to get some hard data.

    There’s also some marketing/positioning stuff going on here (to be totally transparent). We think a lot of managers hunt around for stuff like RescueTime for one reason– because they want to know what the heck is going on and have a suspicion that people are disengaged/not working. The restricted version does just that, and costs less. Once we solve the burning itch that got them hunting around in Google, we can hopefully sell them on some best practices and an upgrade to the (slightly more expensive) open version.

    FWIW, virtually everything on our product roadmap is around the open version– we have a lot more value to add there.

    By the by, I totally agree that the time-spent/effectiveness issue can be dangerously misleading. Part of our (very hard) job is to help educate our customers about the issue.

  7. Sean Johnson says:


    Let me label your scenarios 1-5.

    Scenarios 2, 3, 4 and 5 can all be done with anonymous data. So if you are going to offer this sort of informational asymmetry as a feature of your product, then to be ethical, you need to make the results anonymous. All 4 of these (admirable) scenarios can be achieved with the open version or anonymous data.

    I don’t understand why scenario 1 justifies the closed version’s existence. What does the employees being low cost and high turn over have to do with whether they should see their own data or not? Low skilled or not, high turn over or not, they are still human beings and they deserve the exact same respect as the CEO. If you wouldn’t put it on the CEO’s computer, don’t put it on theirs.

    And there is still no logical reason in #1 why the employee shouldn’t be allowed to see their own data. Why wouldn’t it still be better for the employee to see the data in this scenario? They can still catch and punish people with the open version, but it’s done with transparency (RescueTime has no bugs? What if an employee gets fired because of a bug?) and with an opportunity for the employee to get better and more productive by seeing their data. I don’t care how cheap and expendable an employer might think an employee is, it’s still cheaper to have that employee get better than to have to replace them.

    I really don’t understand the marketing/positioning comment. You can get the exact same Google searcher by talking about employee monitoring as you do now and only offering the open version. The closed version can’t be justified by it being lower cost either. The issue I am trying to bring to light is the unethical nature of the closed version. You are acting as if the employers will buy the closed version because it’s cheaper and that is something you are reacting to and can’t control, but it’s not. You decided to price the closed version cheaper than the open version. You can undo that with a click of the mouse.

    Thank you,

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  9. Aneesh says:

    As a long-time RescueTime user, I too was surprised at the change. I’d have loved to see RescueTime take the moral high ground here, but I can understand the realities of business that compel them to offer the closed version. And further, I think the argument that they can upsell customers to the open version is a plausible one.

    I disagree with Sean that the open product could address Tony’s scenarios just as well. When people know they are being monitored, they probably change their behavior, which could skew the baseline data the company collects. And especially in small teams, there may not be a such thing as “anonymous” data. Even if you remove employee names, it’s probably not too difficult to look at the actual data, the times it was recorded, and map that to a single employee. Granted, attaching the names to the data makes that process easier. As for Sean’s contention that the open version will sell as well as the closed version, that can be easily answered with a good A/B test, and $100 to spend on Google AdWords.

  10. Mike Burton says:

    I too was surprised to see the new direction that RescueTime is taking. And I agree with Sean that I don’t think it’s beneficial to RecueTime’s customers or its business.

    We know that snooping on employees is counter productive for a company. It breeds mistrust and it rewards employees who learn to game the system. The BBC reports, “Big Brother bosses do not get the best out of employees. ” In particular, it replaces high-value intrinsic motivation (I want to do a good job) with low-value extrinsic motivation (I’ll get in trouble if I don’t).

    We also know that snooping is detrimental to the health of employees. It leads to high stress and more sick days. According to a UK study, “Productivity goes down, accidents, ill health and sick leave go up and the workforce feel more like felons than valued employees. If employers want to know what their staff are doing, they should ask them. Consultation and participation aren’t dirty words, they are the key to a productive workplace.”

    And we also know that, even though the pitfalls of snooping are known, the temptations are great enough that companies continue to roll out new ways to snoop anyway.

    Now of course, these companies are never going to make Fortune’s Top 100 Places to Work. And they’re probably going to have difficulties with employee retention during the good times. But that will be cold comfort to the people who are stuck working there in the mean time.

    And that’s where RescueTime has a choice about whether to buy into this slippery slope or not.

    Tony, I recognize that you’re a startup and you have a strong need to go where the money is. But I argue that the money you’re pursuing now is only going to hurt you in the longer run. I think that the RescueTime Pulse product is going to have a significantly negative effect on both employees and employers, and that it will also hurt you in the long run by damaging your brand and trust.

    For what it’s worth, I encourage you to stand strong to your original perception of what you think is right. I think it will be better for the business community both fiscally and morally.


    PS. If there’s anything that we should have learned from history, it’s that the downward spiral is NOT inevitable. Saying that “Employers who want to monitor folks are going to find a vendor” is not actually true, and it does not justify adding a powerful new tool such as RescueTime to the list of ways employers can shoot themselves in the foot.

    • Tony Wright says:

      @mike I think 99% of the problem with monitoring as described in those studies is what is being monitored.

      RescueTime data is pretty much what you’d get if your employees meticulously kept absolutely accurate timesheets all day… Which, of course, would be impossible. RescueTime IS NOT employee monitoring software as most people imagine it (which generally scrape emails, IM conversations, take screenshots, monitor USB access and file movement, etc). For us, it’s a slope– but it isn’t at all slippery. I think what you and the studies are describing is true monitoring software and what a lousy manager might do with it (catch people doing bad things). You COULD use RescueTime for that, but it’s not particularly well suited for it. It could theoretically catch people who don’t spend much time in productive apps/sites, which correlates pretty strongly with productivity

      Given your concerns, do you have a problem with timesheets? How about PBX/software solutions that allow companies to understand length and resolution of tech support calls? Both of these are monitoring tools that I feel we compete with (and both, properly studied, could help you identify bad apples). I don’t feel that those solutions are on morally ambiguous grounds. Monitoring time is (in our opinion) no different than monitoring the expenses on company credit cards / expense accounts. It’s 80% “keeping an account of a critically scarce resource” and 20% “yeah, we have to keep an eye out for people who abuse their employers trust”. If you care more about the latter, you are exactly one Google search away from finding a better solution for your company.