big brother is watching you
Software is out there that can follow every keystroke, every email opened, every document downloaded an employee does — the question is, should businesses use them? PHOTO: Thomas Leuthard

If your organization has a subscription to Microsoft’s Office 365 E5 plan, it has been possible for a couple of years now to track your employees’ work behavior on the platform using MyAnalytics, previously known as Delve Analytics.

This feature can track everything they do while logged into Office 365, including how they use their time at work and who they spend it with.

Keeping a Watchful Eye on Productivity

The concept is great. For example, you can spot whether employees are losing too much time in unproductive meetings or replying to emails. Being aware of this information theoretically means both managers and employees can organize their time more efficiently. 

But, of course, an organization’s Office 365 admins can view the MyAnalytics behaviors, too. And Microsoft is by no means the only company offering the new but increasingly popular technology known as people analytics. There are many providers out there offering tools which aim to track how employees spend their time at work, while helping managers see what their employees are really doing all day.

Working Hard or Hardly Working?

Trying to gauge the productivity of workers is nothing new. Ever since the first production line rolled, managers have attempted to track the output of their employees to address productivity questions like, how many widgets did Worker A produce last week?

Many manual jobs are still tracked this way today, often bringing controversy along with the calculations. However, with the rise of inherently less trackable knowledge work, employers have found it much harder to know if their employees are really doing their jobs — or just looking busy while shopping online.

A Look at the Positives of People Analytics

The new technologies we’re seeing today are attempting to give the ability to monitor productivity back to managers. But is this development actually welcomed by everyone? What are the issues, and how can people analytics be used most successfully?

On the surface, people analytics seem like a positive thing. They introduce a range of capabilities which should help both employees and employers. Some of the key selling points include:

  1. More transparent metrics for performance reviews: Annual performance reviews between managers and employees are often based on a mix of gut feelings, favoritism and general impressions. People analytics could round out these reviews and challenge prejudices by focusing on what employees have measurably achieved.
  2. Bringing proper recognition to employees who work hard: Hard workers all too often don’t get properly recognized for their contributions. People analytics could potentially bring the fact that certain employees are doing much more work than their less productive colleagues to the attention of managers.
  3. Helping people who are struggling: If a people analytics tool spots the same person making the same mistake over and again, or notes that a task still hasn’t been completed over a period of days, this could highlight that an employee is having a problem and allow managers to offer additional training or help.

Considering the Cons of People Analytics

While companies that offer people analytics tools emphasize that their software will help employees out, this can often seem more than a little disingenuous. Many employees will immediately find the notion of people analytics intrusive or ‘creepy’, and if used incorrectly will only bring out the worst in micromanagers. But beyond these immediate negative reactions, there are several deeper concerns with people analytics:

  1. They encourage employees to follow predefined behaviors: If employees know they’re being watched and measured, this could well result in odd or unpredictable behavior. For example, some staff will try to game the system by acting in ways that they know will appear well-behaved. Such behavior, while clever in the short term, actually creates ongoing disincentives for innovation or approaching problem-solving in non-traditional ways.
  2. People and productivity are complex: People analytics effectively boil productivity down to the number of buttons a person clicks on a screen. Those metrics might measure something, but it may not necessarily be information you really want.

    In reality, productivity, and the ways in which people work, are hugely complex phenomena. Our definitions of productivity will change from task to task and be influenced by the work style of the particular employees doing those tasks. When employees do all their work on-screen, prefer to doodle on scraps of paper or even sit silently in deep thought, people analytics can’t differentiate between alternative forms of productivity in any meaningful way.

  3. Trust and responsibility: In most organizations, people analytics won’t be introduced with the aim of spying on staff. Nevertheless, implementing this kind of tool can convey a lot about how a business sees its staff. Are they staffers that the employer sees as inherently responsible — people who can and should be trusted to work in their own way to the best of their ability?

    The problem with any kind of people analytics is that, embedded in the monitoring process, is the assumption that employees must be guided toward a better way — or at least one that a manager thinks is better.

Putting the Personal in People Analytics

Like any technology, people analytics has received a fair amount of both hype and misunderstanding. Ultimately, as with any data analytics, this kind of tech can provide some useful information. Yet, only when combined with additional ways of learning about employees through personal interaction can people analytics reach its full potential.

In short, people analytics can be an important tool, but businesses that view them as a shortcut to resolving all their resourcing dilemmas are likely to be greatly disappointed.