Should companies use platforms like Zoom and Slack to track employee productivity?

With millions of employees collaborating virtually with their colleagues via platforms like Zoom and Slack, companies now have access to a plethora of data that could be used to track the productivity of their employees. But should they use it?

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 [1]. 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: 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 [2]. 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.

Sources:

[1]: “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

[2]: 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

Previous:

AI as Talent Scout

Next:

Your Instagram Told Me So…

6 thoughts on “Should companies use platforms like Zoom and Slack to track employee productivity?

  1. Thanks for writing such a clear and well-structured post! The three questions helped me think through some of these key concerns around data collection and its use. I’m afraid that people analytics is becoming increasingly invasive, and the agency of employees is being diminished. In addition to addressing privacy and security concerns, companies who want to collect more data need to make a clearer case for how it would be beneficial for the employees as well, and not just the employers. Similar to the notion of ‘gender mainstreaming’ in which all policy decisions must take the implications for all genders into account, there needs to be an ’employee mainstreaming’ approach in people analytics, in which the perspectives of the employees are embedded in every company decision. Hopefully this will shift the focus from being centered around ‘performance’ and ‘productivity’ to the emotional and physical well-being of employees.

  2. Great article and post! This is a particularly relevant question given the current pandemic and resultant working conditions!

    I think in addition to the privacy and trust issues that you raised, there is also the possibility that increased tracking could actually incentivize unproductive behavior. Instead of focusing on getting work done, employees will be motivated to cater to the metrics that are being tracked, such as screen time on Zoom or number of messages sent on Slack.

    Ultimately, metrics drive performance and signal to employees which actions are important and valued. Companies need to make sure they pick both the right metrics, and the right behaviors that lead to performance, in order to get more out of their workforce.

  3. Great analysis of these difficult issues! I think ownership is a key element for us to consider – especially since the legal frameworks are so behind the technology. Similar to how certain regulations like the GDPR try to stake out individual ownership of one’s data, we should likewise be able to own our data that employers collect about us. Right now, it’s very much a one way street which creates a power imbalance. This should include the right to be forgotten if we leave a company, and the right to download our own data for our own use.

  4. Thanks for writing this post, Aurora! I agree with your analysis, and it made me think about when we think it’s acceptable for employee behavior to be tracked. I keep thinking about what our visitor from Microsoft said about how low-skill labor has always been under surveillance, and we’re only uncomfortable now that white collar jobs are being monitored. I think your distinction of “if employees are paid by the hour, it’s reasonable for employers to monitor what they’re doing” makes sense.

  5. Great analysis! I agree with the most points. On one point though, I believe employers have the right to monitor employees’ activities during work hours. On the other hand, I do not think that being constantly monitored would necessarily improve the performance. Everyone has a different style of getting things done. All in all, if incorporated with other data, such as performance scores, peer feedback, and manager feedback, such monitoring would give companies relevant insight about the employee performance problems.

  6. The underlying feeling I get from your post is that organizations are looking at the problem from the wrong perspective. The reason you have to dive into the pros / cons of productivity tracking is because companies aren’t being creative enough to actually fix the problem. Recently, companies have become data hungry and just want to collect more data points about their employees. They continually “diagnose” and rarely provide a “treatment”. Instead of checking to see if I’m looking at my Zoom screen, give me the ability to signal my disinterest or show that I don’t think I need to be in this meeting. Give me a upvote / downvote button live in meeting that everyone can use to decide if a topic has drawn on too long and we need to move on. As the host, show me who is confused so I can try to clear thing up for people. There is so much opportunity in building tools that actually help people improve in real-time instead of just collecting more data to use for something later.

Leave a comment