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Many employers use periodic surveys to determine employee sentiment, but an alternative way to gather that information might be through continuous listening.
Continuous monitoring tools analyze employee communications on collaboration platforms such as Teams, Slack and Zoom to identify behavioral anomalies, such as increased communication after work hours or response delays. Lags in responding to co-workers can signal discontent. If harsh language starts appearing within collaboration tools, workplace toxicity might be suspected. The tools can also provide dashboard indicators of employee sentiment about workplace conditions, new technologies or equipment deployed at work.
The continuous listening market is in its infancy, according to Gartner, but that might begin to change.
Last week, Qualtrics threw its weight into the product category with a new capability in its Manager Assist product. It includes collaboration tool monitoring and can also gather calendar data.
These tools will give managers immediate insights into changing workplace sentiment, said Wojtek Kubik, Qualtrics' head of product management for employee experience. That's in contrast to employee surveys that typically range in frequency from annual to quarterly. "Surveys don't often happen enough," he said.
Continuous listening technology can have dual-use purposes and also serve a security role. Aware, a collaboration intelligence company based in Columbus, Ohio, does both.
Security and sentiment
Aware sells to two types of buyers: One is organizations concerned about security risks, such as sharing intellectual property, passwords or customer credit card numbers over collaboration channels. The other is interested in collecting employee sentiment from collaboration tools, particularly among frontline employees.
Organizations are already trying to use technology to create a two-way dialogue with frontline employees and managers to chat with them and ask them about what's going on, said Jeff Schumann, co-founder and CEO of Aware. But its technology pays attention in "an aggregate manner" to the overall discussions.
"We're scoring and identifying sentiment and how it is trending over time," Schumann said. The tools discover what is important and turn that into information to help managers understand "what our employees care about today," he said, adding that it could be something like a malfunctioning ice cream maker at a restaurant or incorrect pay slips.
Managers are "able to get a real-time view -- a continuous understanding of what's going well and what's going poorly, because it's sourcing at scale," Schumann said. He likens it to Google Trends, a tool for tracking the popularity of web searches.
The vendors say the information is anonymized, and individual employees are not tracked.
Employees need to feel comfortable sharing information; otherwise, "you're going to scare people from using the platform," Qualtrics' Kubik said. He said the system ensures no one in an organization can tie data back to an individual.
In a recent report on continuous listening technology, Gartner said the potential benefits include tracking employee sentiment, performance, development and collaboration in new ways. But it also saw resistance to adoption, including from HR departments that "have already deployed a wide variety of HR tools and do not wish to add further complexity."
Ethics, management concerns
Remote and hybrid work are helping to drive interest in employee monitoring tools, but continuous employee monitoring raises ethics and management concerns. There is also an emerging legislative push in Congress and in states to require employers to inform employees of workplace monitoring practices.
Benjamin LakerProfessor, Henley Business School, University of Reading
"If you're trying to understand how your employees feel, there might be better ways to do that," said Irina Raicu, program director for Internet Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. She believes the best way to learn what employees think is by "asking people directly for their input" or using apps that anonymize their feedback.
There is a risk that employees "might not tell you everything truthfully," Raicu said, but "I still think that's the version that most respects individual rights."
Benjamin Laker, a professor in the Henley Business School department of leadership, organizations and behavior at the University of Reading in the U.K., said employers have an obligation to inform employees about the use of monitoring technology and "should do so regularly."
Laker, who has written on this topic for the MIT Sloan Management Review, said employers should strive to create a trusting environment and clear guidelines on the appropriate use of workplace monitoring.
In terms of best practices, "it is essential for employers to proactively seek feedback from employees and consider their needs when deploying monitoring technologies so that any benefits are balanced against any potential intrusive effects," he said.
Raicu noted that monitoring tools are generally deployed for workers and not C-suite executives. "I think this is very much a reminder of who has power and who doesn't," she said.
Patrick Thibodeau covers HCM and ERP technologies for TechTarget Editorial. He's worked for more than two decades as an enterprise IT reporter.