Our class has often highlighted one of the major challenges of any sort of network- or communications-tracking tools, which is that much of one-on-one exchanges continue to happen offline with little-to-no digital footprint. However, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has rapidly pushed most companies to all-digital work, which means nearly all employee interactions can now be tracked and analyzed*. One MIT Sloan Management Review article, Managing the Flow of Ideas in a Pandemic, by Professor Sandy Pentland, states that making use of this is essential to optimizing performance in our new model of working. I disagree, and have both operational and ethical concerns about rolling out new people analytic tools during the crsis.
The specific software solutions highlighted by Professor Pentland are, like many of the products discussed in LPA, pretty cool stuff: they offer opportunities to identify bottlenecks in communication flows, nudge individuals to adopt more inclusive videoconference etiquette, and coach speakers on their tone of voice.
But, also like many of the products we’ve discussed in LPA, there remain big questions: how will employees behave if they know a piece of software is constantly listening? Should the data be used to make performance management decisions? How can we communicate the rollout of these tools in a way that maintains employee trust and engagement?
In the midst of a global crisis, there is another question one must consider: is a pandemic and pending global recession really the time to be rolling out new, invasive people analytics software? My point of view is no, and that companies should be cautious about adopting Professor Pentland’s pandemic-era advice for the following reasons:
- These tools are built to recognize behavioral data from “normal” times, but these are not “normal” times and we cannot universally hold employees to “normal” standards
These have been trained on employee behavior during non-pandemic times, which are drastically different from employee behavior today. Most concerning for me is what will happen for employees that are taking on caretaking roles for family members with COVID – do the models penalize them for sending emails at odd hours? Taking extra time to respond to communications? Looking less engaged in videoconferences? (Even those of us without caretaking responsibilities have been known to look at bit glassy-eyed on Zoom when a particularly ominous New York Times alert pops up.) The answer to any of these questions could easily be yes, even though most of us would agree that to do so is ethically problematic.
- As companies contemplate mass layoffs and furloughs, it will be natural for employees to misinterpret these tools as ways to generate data for headcount reduction choices
As we’ve often discussed in LPA, it’s natural for employees to assume the worst when they hear about more “invasive” data collection – and today, the worst feels particularly close-at-hand. Employees are buckling under new levels of chronic stress and uncertainty, and an added stressor such as a videoconference analyzer or email tracker might undermine the very performance that it is seeking to optimize. We don’t need to give our employees yet another thing to worry about.
- Careful communication is key to successful implementation of these tools, but employees are already overwhelmed with COVID-related communications
All-company emails might be at an all-time high for many companies; as the situation evolves daily, leaders and HR teams need to prepare and disseminate updates daily. All of us, on both the receiving and sending ends of these updates, are on information overload. The type of massive communication campaign required to effective roll out one of these tools, especially given the propensity for misinterpretation (see above), is beyond the reach of most HR teams to manage, and beyond the reach of many employees to comprehend.
I tend to believe that it will be possible to mitigate and contain many of the privacy concerns that we discuss in LPA, and that the software solutions highlighted by Professor Pentland could become ubiquitous in the future – but now is not the time to hasten that implementation, even if the massive quantities of data being generated prove tempting. Instead, companies allow employees to opt into coaching tools, with the explicit promise that company leaders will not access individual-level data or analyses.
* Phone calls and texts on personal devices remain a blind spot, at least for now (thank goodness)