Businesses can track employee productivity via popular job apps

Your boss probably has enough data on your digital activities to get a snapshot of your workday, without using any special tracking software.

Commonly used network-connected apps like Zoom, Slack, and Microsoft Office give managers the ability to find anything from the number of video meetings you’ve actively participated in, how much you’ve chatted online with colleagues, and how many documents you’ve saved in the cloud.

But are these snippets of a worker’s digital day an accurate representation of the amount of work done by employees?

“Activity doesn’t equal productivity,” says Bart Willemsen, Gartner’s vice president and analyst specializing in privacy and technology. “Productivity should equal results.”

Workers should be aware that many online job apps offer data on their daily activities. But workplace and privacy experts say data from these work apps should only be considered part of a bigger picture of employee productivity. The problem becomes more complicated if managers use app data intended to help employees with stress, time management and well-being to determine an individual’s future in the workplace.

Hundreds of thousands of people have adopted new ways of working during the pandemic, spending several days or a whole working week at home. Gallup estimates that in June, according to the latest available data, about 34 million people worked in hybrid environments, a mix of office and home. And about 36.5 million people in the United States worked remotely at least five days a week in early August, according to the Census Bureau’s Home Pulse Exam.

As a result, employers have been looking for new ways to manage and ensure productivity, with an increasing number of them turning to surveillance software. In early 2022, global demand for employee monitoring software increased by 65% ​​compared to 2019, according to internet security and digital rights company Top10VPN.

Employers can use tools in common enterprise software from Microsoft, Google, Zoom, and others to measure the productivity of remote workers. (Video: Jonathan Baran / The Washington Post)

But popular job apps also offer data.

In Microsoft 365, an account admin can pull data, although it may not be easy and would be tracked in compliance logs, on how many emails workers have sent, how many files they have saved on a shared drive, and how many messages they have sent. as well as video meetings they participated in on the Microsoft Teams video and messaging tool. Google Workspace, Google’s suite of work tools, allows administrators, for security and control purposes, to see how many emails a user has sent and received, how many files they have saved and accessed in Google Drive, and when a user started a video meeting, from where they joined the meetings and who was in a meeting. Selected administrators on both services can also access the content of emails and calendar items.

On paid Slack accounts, managers can see how many days users have been active and how many messages they have sent in a given period of time. Zoom allows account administrators to see how many meetings users have attended, the length of the meetings, and whether users have enabled the camera and microphone during meetings. And if they have company-issued employees phones or use office badges or technology that requires them to log into the office, managers can track phone usage and office attendance.

To be sure several software companies say their reports are not intended for employee evaluation and surveillance. Microsoft said using technology to monitor employees is counterproductive and suggested that some managers may have “productivity paranoia”. In the help section of its website, Slack states that the analytics it offers should be “used to understand the entire team’s use of Slack, not to evaluate an individual’s performance.”

Brian Elliott, senior vice president of Slack and executive leader of the Slack-led consortium focused on the future of work, said using activity-based analytics to measure productivity does not take into account people’s various communication styles. And incentivising this type of business over actual results can increase stress and erode worker confidence.

“Measuring productivity based on surface activities such as ‘sent messages’ gives us an extraordinarily limited view of a person’s contributions to their organization,” he said. “Not only is it arbitrary, it is usually counterproductive.”

Trello, a project management tool owned by software company Atlassian, gives teams the ability to see who is working on which project and each person’s workload. But that data is aimed at helping teams collaborate more easily, track projects, and take action when a colleague might be carrying a heavy load, said Gaurav Kataria, product manager at Trello. The product does not offer individual reports.

“We didn’t create the product for that use case,” he said. “We are building for the users”.

Several workplace experts agree on one thing: the data does not correctly represent a worker’s productivity. Activities such as in-person tutoring, time to brainstorm, drafting a plan, or using offline software won’t show up in the data. And measuring quantity could detract from the quality of one’s work or interactions.

Getting a snapshot of a worker’s digital day becomes even easier if workers use the same suite of products for all digital activities. But even without it, employers can use third-party tools to compile data from various digital services, said Daniel Kahn Gillmor, senior personnel technologist at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Speech, Privacy and Technology project.

“There is nothing to stop anyone from doing it [collecting this data]”Gilmor said, referring to both technology companies and account administrators.” The more your work is done through these online services, the more information the service providers have. “

Less obvious ways for employers could be monitoring workers without surveillance software by checking local WiFi logs and security cameras, Gilmor said. To track workers’ movements through the office, an employer may be able to use local network access point logs to see who was connected to each point at any given time. Employers can also use the software to automatically track employee office movements via security camera footage, Gilmor added.

Meanwhile, some apps can help employers understand workers’ sentiment, actions and behaviors to determine which workers may not be “culture-appropriate” or pose a threat of reporting or file theft, Wilneida Negrón said. Director of Policy and Research for the Worker Advocacy Organization Coworker .org Employers who use Microsoft Viva, a tool that helps connect employees to insights, communications and other resources, can add a service called Insights, which sends a snapshot of a worker’s habits and potential stress to the individual’s work email. That email can be accessed by a limited set of account administrators. But the data can become problematic if employers secretly use it to discriminate or inform their decisions about employment, compensation or promotions, Negrón said.

Despite surveillance, workers are not helpless, said Liz Shuler, president of the AFL-CIO.

“There is power in collective action,” he said. “You can form a union, but you can also create pressure … it takes some form of union to rebalance the scale.”

If employers choose to silently use that data to evaluate their workers, it will likely reduce company loyalty and lead people to work solely to meet the metrics rather than doing their jobs effectively, said Gartner’s Willemsen.

“My real fear is that there are a lot of experiments going on and no transparency,” he said. “Say out loud and in advance what you are monitoring and for what purpose. It’s the right thing to do. “