Millions of employees around the world are currently working from home as we try to “flatten the curve” on COVID-19. Naturally, companies are concerned over their employees’ productivity levels during this time and are wondering whether their workforce can be just as productive at home as they are at the office. While some organizations might take a laissez-faire approach and trust their employees to get their work done, others might try to actively manage at-home productivity. For those managers missing the ability to pop by your cubicle to get a peek at your screen, to what indicators might they turn to measure how focused you are at home?
A recent article in Fast Company by Raju Vegesna points to one productivity indicator organizations could turn to – Zoom and Slack data . The article suggests that, while these applications have been helpful for communication during the current crisis, these apps also collect data that employers could potentially use to track productivity. For instance, Zoom has a feature that lets the meeting host know whether attendees have Zoom out of view for more than 30 seconds while someone is sharing their screen. As for Slack, employers have full access to all messages sent through the Slack platform (even those that are sent privately). Using this data, organizations have the potential to track whether their employees are paying attention during zoom calls and could even analyze text data sent through Slack to determine whether conversations between colleagues are on-task. Vegesna suggests that organizations should refrain from relying on these data sources because they invade employees’ privacy, and instead recommends that managers focus on evaluating results.
This article intimates several fundamental questions about data and productivity that we should consider not only during the current crisis, but also further into the future as more and more data on how employees spend their time becomes available:
- Should organizations have the right to track how and when employees focus on their work, or should they only be allowed to evaluate employees based on the results they deliver?
One the one hand, some companies pay their employees by the hour – so if someone isn’t using their time wisely while they’re on the clock, perhaps organizations should have the right to know about it. I could also see how tracking when and how employees focus on their work might be useful if organizations intend to use it to find more efficient ways for work to be done. For instance, if a manager finds that everyone in attendance during a regularly-scheduled Zoom meeting wasn’t paying attention, it could be interpreted as feedback that the meeting wasn’t actually the best use of everyone’s time. However, I don’t think that organizations should be able to track how and when employees focus on their work if the organization’s main reason for doing so is because they lack trust in their employees and think they need babysitting. I worry that this sentiment might overshadow any of the potential benefits that tracking this type of employee data might bring.
Instead, I think organizations should be limited to evaluating employees based on the results they deliver. At the end of the day, what matters most is that employees are getting their work done – not how or when they decide to do it.
- If organizations do have the right to track their employees’ focus, what are the metrics that employers should be allowed to track? At what point do the metrics cross the line and invade employee privacy?
I think productivity-tracking metrics cross the line when the data is (1) not anonymized and (2) when it is collected from sources that employees believe to be private.
When the data is not anonymized, employers can point to specific individuals who are scoring favorably and unfavorably on the metrics they compute. I think this greatly oversteps expectations of privacy. Instead, organizations should ensure that the data is anonymized and only analyze it in aggregate so that individual data cannot be picked out. Employees should be assured that their data will only be used in this way.
Employers should also let their employees know if they intend to track their data on the platforms they use for work (Slack, Zoom, Outlook, etc.). Some platforms ostensibly appear to offer private methods of communication (e.g. Slack) and employees’ baseline assumption might be that exchanges there are truly private. If the data from these “private” methods of communication is collected and analyzed without employees’ knowledge, this is a major privacy violation. Employees have the right to know that anything they do on a work platforms is fair-game for analysis if that’s the case. Aside from work platforms, I think all other data should be completely off limits to an organization. If an employee checks their personal email at work, for instance, the data on the outside platform should not be visible to employers.
- How would employees respond to having their focus tracked? Would employees refrain from distraction and be more productive, or would they be less engaged as a result of feeling less autonomy over their work?
I don’t think employees would respond well to feeling as though they’re being tracked. Recent research by Erin Kelly and Phyllis Moen has shown that employees respond positively to having autonomy over the way they work. When organizations place their trust in employees to get their work done, regardless of when or where they decide to work, employees have lower intention to leave their company and experience an overall boost in well-being . Thus, when organizations track and attempt to micromanage their employees, they might be at a higher risk for disengaging and losing them down the line.
If an organization still feels it’s necessary to track the productivity of their employees, they should make their intentions for use of the data very clear to their employees. If the goal is to identify ways to make work more efficient, for example, employees should know this and be assured that the data isn’t being used as a tool to micromanage them. Making sure that the employees know they’re trusted is important, so organizations should work hard to maintain this trust if they choose to use these productivity metrics.
: “The one strategy managers need to make sure employees stay after the COVID-19 crisis”. https://www.fastcompany.com/90487307/the-one-strategy-managers-need-to-use-to-make-sure-their-employees-stay-with-them-after-the-covid-19-crisis
: Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It by Erin L. Kelly and Phyllis Moen. https://press.princeton.edu/books/hardcover/9780691179179/overload