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Monitoring productivity of employees crosses privacy boundaries

As remote work continues, organizations are looking for new ways to monitor productivity of employees. But they walk a fine line between employee monitoring and surveillance.

Moving to remote work at the beginning of the pandemic was an adjustment for many employees. While some employees were more productive working for home, others struggled with this new way of life.

As remote work continues, productivity expectations are changing. Many organizations are now seeking tools and metrics to gain insight into how their employees work remotely. The challenge, however, is how to monitor productivity and engagement appropriately.

Managing employees is one of the top challenges for remote work, Metrigy analyst Irwin Lazar said. Organizations and managers have a need for some type of dashboard that provides information on how employees are engaged with and using collaboration tools.

"Something we're going to see more of with work from home is new metrics and apps that are specific to measuring productivity," said Jon Arnold, analyst at J Arnold & Associates.

Microsoft's monitoring fumble

Microsoft introduced the Productivity Score tool for its 365 suite of apps to measure how employees are using app features and provide a score to benchmark against similar organizations.

Metrics measured in the tool include the following:

  • time spent in apps like Teams;
  • the number of employees using apps across multiple devices;
  • the number of communication modes used;
  • quality of network connectivity; and
  • how employees are using shared workspaces.
Something we're going to see more of with work from home is new metrics and apps that are specific to measuring productivity.
Jon ArnoldAnalyst, J Arnold & Associates

However, the tool received some backlash because of the amount of data it captured, as well as how managers could track employees on an individual level and search employees by name. The main critique of the tool was it crept toward invasive surveillance technology and could be used as an arbitrary measurement of employee effectiveness.

In response to the backlash, Microsoft reworked the tool, clarified it was not intended for surveillance and removed employee names from the product. Microsoft also said it would modify the UI to make it clear the tool is meant to measure organizational adoption of technology, rather than score user behavior.

"If I'm managing a remote workforce, I would like to have a dashboard that tells me: Are employees engaged in conversation? Are they using meeting tools? Are they turning on cameras?" Lazar said. "If they're not, I can quickly identify and address what concerns there might be."

But these needs are a continuous battle with privacy concerns, as employees can feel like Big Brother is watching them, he said.

Creating meaningful metrics and protecting employee data

The specific metrics to measure and monitor productivity of employees will vary by business. Organizations will need to define and determine the metrics that matter to them, Lazar said. Companies should evaluate metrics based on job roles and personas within the business. Also, organizations should use tools that enable them to customize data and evaluate aggregate information for benchmarking purposes.

But, when creating metrics -- and, inevitably, data -- organizations should consider how employee data and privacy are protected, Lazar said. If organizations are using analytics to measure engagement or productivity, they must ensure the data is stored securely, manage who has access to the data and establish measures in case of a leak.

Organizations also need to question their vendors on how they protect data and prevent it from getting into the wrong hands.

Bringing AI capabilities to productivity monitoring

Organizations could take inspiration from contact centers and apply AI analytics to monitor productivity of employees. Contact centers have been using AI to provide insights into agent communications. Sentiment analysis, for example, uses natural language processing to identify emotional tones in a conversation.

Sentiment analysis is widely available in contact center products, and those capabilities could expand into other areas of an organization, Lazar said.

For example, RingCentral recently acquired DeepAffects, an AI-driven conversational intelligence platform. RingCentral plans to integrate the platform with its video meetings to add capabilities like sentiment analysis, multispeaker recognition and speech recognition.

AI-driven technology could capture information such as raised voices or stress reactions, which are not typically logged by audio and video meeting services, Lazar said.

In the end, it's all about trust

Employers have a legitimate need and right to know if remote workers are performing, but they have to look at more than just data, Arnold said.

"When you start getting into the idea of filtering everything through a collaboration platform, it's very easy to think that defines the world of work," he said. "We don't have to have a meeting, document sharing and cobrowsing -- not everything's about workflows."

The best way to get the most out of collaboration and productivity platforms is to get input from everyone and drive widespread adoption. An organization could, for example, create an advisory council that includes leaders, office workers and home-based workers to create a balanced point of view on what tools employees should be using and how, Arnold said.

"For these platforms to be effective, people have to be using them because there are alternatives," he said. If employees feel their boss is going to watch their every move in the organization's chosen collaboration platform, they will go out and find their own, he said.

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