In the fight against “silent disengagement” and other obstacles to productivity in the workplace, companies are increasingly turning to a range of sophisticated tools to watch and analyze how employees do their jobs. The exciting news for American leaders: These technologies can fall short of their promises, and even be counterproductive.
Anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of workplace monitoring technology has not stopped it from sweeping through US companies over the past 2½ years. Since the start of the pandemic, one in three medium-sized companies have adopted some form of worker surveillance system, and the overall fraction using such systems is two in three, says Brian Kropp, vice -president of HR research at Gartner..
While there is a wide spectrum in how these systems work and the data they collect, many of them involve continuous monitoring of almost everything workers do on their devices.
That’s a speed of adoption that’s rare in the history of technology—even at the steepest part of the American adoption curve, the spread of the smartphone isn’t even that fast. This technological change is of particular concern to white-collar workers who tend to have more freedom in their work practices than blue-collar workers who have to punch time clocks.
In changing the nature of work, the attitudes of the people who do it, and what companies can expect from workers, this shift could reflect a profound imbalance of power between employee and employer. employer, say those who study it and even. some within the industry who create it.
Surveillance capitalism within the office
By law, the amount of data employers can collect on employees is extremely broad. There is software that can take a screenshot of a worker’s computer every 10 minutes, while also recording the apps and websites the worker visited, and how long she stayed . Critics of this type have nicknamed these systems “bossware” and deride them as a new form of morale-eroding micromanagement, like having your boss look over your shoulder every minute of the day.
Collecting this amount of data about what a worker does throughout the day typically requires so-called “agent-based” systems, in which a piece of software is installed on a company-issued device. Such systems can have full access to everything that happens on a computer, tablet or phone. (This, incidentally, is not how the most sophisticated types of spyware used by nation-states capture data from targets’ devices.) Examples of this type of software include ActivTrak and Teramind.
“Realistically, the vast majority of customers don’t find it necessary to fully monitor all users all the time,” says Isaac Kohen, vice president of research and development at Teramind. The company’s software is designed to automatically record or notify user behavior if an employee does something wrong, such as sending company secrets to a competitor, or spending all day on Facebook. But it is entirely up to employers how to use the system, and what rules to establish. “Unfortunately, due to the nature of Teramind, the system can be abused if it gets into the wrong hands,” he says.
ActivTrak says on its website that it has “gone from an employee monitoring tool to a powerful privacy-aware productivity platform.” This means its software now includes privacy controls and aggregated anonymous data, a company spokesperson says. Unlike similar tools, ActivTrak does not support keystroke logging, camera access, video recording or email reading or counting, she says.
At the other end of the spectrum are systems more familiar to office workers, such as Google Workspace and Microsoft 365. These collect data, but deliberately limit how much and what type. Both allow a senior administrator in an organization with the appropriate privileges to see which functions within these systems are used by an employee, and how often, but may mask the employee’s identity and only offer data over a period of weeks , not days or hours. For some services, more detailed data, such as how many messages or emails are sent and when, can be extracted. Notably, however, these systems are not capable of the all-encompassing tracking that agent-based ones do. They can’t track every keystroke, or take screenshots of a worker’s device, for example.
Microsoft has taken pains to make employee-level data and activity within its apps difficult even for IT administrators to access, a company spokesperson says. Microsoft doesn’t believe that activity equates to productivity, and organizations should be careful about tracking the wrong kinds of things to measure employee performance, he says.
Companies like Prodoscore take the data collected by common business applications and parse it in ways that the makers of those applications don’t normally do. David Powell, president of Prodoscore, says this is the line where “cloud” employee monitoring begins and ends: All the data used by Prodoscore has already been collected by the cloud-based software suites that companies use, and it is available through APIs, which are connection points for software.
Even with this limited data, Prodoscore can create a very detailed breakdown for bosses of the Prodoscore-related services used by an employee, when, and whether from or outside the office. The company’s software can chart that worker’s productivity over time, even digesting it into a single score, which Mr. Powell compares to a credit report, but for work. Although the service is intended to help managers recognize exceptional effort in some employees, and to train others whose productivity may be falling below the historical average, the service could be misused. this level of detail, should a manager rely too much on it.
“We think of it as a gun,” says Mr. Powell. “It can be used for good or bad.”
Fierce debate about usefulness
For a relatively complex and potentially highly invasive technology to be so warmly embraced by so many company leaders, you’d think there would be overwhelming evidence that it lives up to its promises. But there is no independent, peer-reviewed research showing that it does, say Antonio Aloisi and Valerio De Stefano, professors who recently combed the literature on this topic for their book, “Your Boss Is an Algorithm,” about the management phenomenon of get bigger by software.
“There is certainly no study that indicates this increases productivity in any meaningful way,” says Dr. Aloisi, based in Madrid.
Ben Waber is the president of Humanyze, a company that uses data to assess organizational health over long periods of time, without allowing managers to track individual employees. He says systems aimed at quantifying things like when an individual employee is sitting at their desk, and how many emails they send each day, should be viewed with great skepticism. “There’s no research that shows that those kinds of things correlate with any outcome that employers care about,” says Mr. Waber.
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Adrian Reece, chief data scientist at Prodoscore, says the academic literature on productivity monitoring tools is divided into two camps. One finds that such tools increase accountability at work and can help people set and track their progress toward goals. The other camp argues that these tools are ethically dubious, unfair, and lead to a sense of low personal agency, which can reduce productivity.
Systems that simply track whether workers are logged in and at their desks, and interrupt them because they’re not connected, can cause increased stress for workers, according to several studies. says Dr. Of Stefano.
For example, one 2020 survey of 2,100 call center workers across seven companies found that more intensive monitoring of workers – including recording keystrokes and tracking online activity – was associated with increased stress, lower job satisfaction , higher absenteeism, and a greater desire to quit.
In a 2020 survey of more than 2,000 of its members, the Council of Trade Unions of the United Kingdom found that 56% said the introduction of new worker monitoring systems had damaged trust between workers and employers.
There is also evidence, says Dr. De Stefano, that the introduction of these systems can encourage users to play the systems themselves, rather than doing their actual jobs.
Download the price of working from home
In some ways, what’s going on here is that companies are conducting a massive research experiment on their employees without necessarily being equipped to understand the data produced by their worker surveillance systems. Only about one in three medium-sized companies has an analytics and data science team capable of parsing the kind of data these systems throw out, says Mr. Kropp of Gartner.
However employees feel under increased monitoring of how they do their work, they may not have much choice about it, as more companies rely on employee acceptance to monitor homework. One Prodoscore client who recently switched to telecommuting specified that employees who wanted to work from home had to use Prodoscore, Mr. Powell says. In the first month, 80% of the company’s employees, or 3,200 of them, opted in, he says.
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