team looking at a laptop screen together
Employee monitoring brings up the specter of big brother, but that notion needs to be put to rest. PHOTO: U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

We have started to turn the corner on next-gen collaboration in the enterprise.

With millennials comprising the majority of today’s workforce, companies are rapidly adopting collaboration tools that reflect the consumer experience that millennials grew up with, and that Generation Xers and baby boomers have adapted to. Members of Gen Z can’t even talk about email. While email certainly isn’t going anywhere, it has a narrower role in business than it once did. Collaboration today takes place via Microsoft Teams, Workplace by Facebook, Slack, Chatter, Stride and a host of other tools that will occupy this new frontier in the digital workplace.

Quashing the Big Brother Stereotype

However, using those new tools can create security risks. For one thing, with chat tools and the like, there are a lot more ways for outsiders to gain access to your systems, and there are a lot more avenues by which proprietary company information can be leaked to outsiders — either maliciously or inadvertently. And networks set up to foster improved communication among team members can also be used to harass and intimidate people.

Monitoring technology tools have emerged to track activities in these tools, to help ensure they are used appropriately. But the term “monitoring technology” often raises the specter of bosses spying on their employees, a perception that needs to change.

Last fall, The Guardian ran an article about employee monitoring technology. It was soon picked up in the LinkedIn newsfeed, where editors asked for feedback under the hashtag #bigbrotheremployer (nothing leading in that hashtag!). It has been fascinating to watch people weigh in on the topic.

Monitoring With Purpose and Optimism

In the interest of full disclosure, I’m the chief operating officer of Wiretap, a provider of systems designed to enhance security and governance of enterprise collaboration environments, and I am quoted in The Guardian’s article because our awareness generation efforts led to the story’s publication. We wanted to foster dialogue on this important conversation. I believe my point of view on the topic is unique, because I spent years contemplating the virtues, vices and slippery slopes of the employee monitoring landscape as a CIO of three large enterprises and now as a startup COO. In this article, I want to focus on the importance of monitoring in enterprise collaboration thoughtfully and with a sense of purpose and optimism.

Getting the context right for a discussion of monitoring in enterprise collaboration is important. I often see authors try to lightning-rod the issue by using provocative headlines, or by capturing an emotional aspect of the story, as if monitoring is somehow a new concept in the workplace and inherently freedom-destroying. As someone who lives in the real world of trying to balance competing interests while deploying new technologies to help our customers compete effectively and efficiently, I don’t have the luxury of considering polarizing points of view.

I start from the premise that all human interaction and commercial activity requires some level of structure to be effective. I also start from the premise that companies are nothing more than the sum of the people who choose to operate within a shared context to accomplish something they think is worth doing. These companies owe the members of their community a level of due care that is, at the very least, consistent with that of our society at large. Some companies aspire to a higher standard, but generally we’d rather not tolerate a lower one — cue the Uber examples.

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Employee Monitoring Is Not New

Let’s start with this (spoiler alert!): Employee monitoring has in essence been in existence for decades. From mail, email and voicemail, to the HR-related information we share with our employers, we generally expect these to be the property of our employers. We have always hated or mildly resented not being “trusted” by our employers. What we don’t always do is connect the dots between employee monitoring as a necessary quirk in the workplace to its role in protecting us, or people we care about, in situations where the company’s reputation is put at risk: sexual harassment, inappropriate communication, threats, rumors and slanderous language, for example.

What exactly is the standard of “due care” in a world of rapidly changing tech?

We have better technology available and we have an opportunity to take this whole question of knowing what is going on inside a large enterprise and catapult our knowledge base to the next level. Let’s all agree that it’s time to move beyond checking for bad words and assuming bad intent. We need to understand context and patterns, not just facts. Before we dive into where we should head with the latest technologies in employee monitoring, let’s talk about why.

Not Everyone Is Trustworthy

It is an inconvenient truth that not everyone inside an enterprise is trusted or trustable, despite every effort made by HR and business managers to hire trustworthy people. Just ask the engineer at Uber who was propositioned by her boss on the company collaboration network.

Statistically the proof is clear: In a 2014 Harvard Business Review article titled “The Danger From Within,” researchers David M. Upton and Sadie Creese reported that there were 80 million insider attacks in 2014. And in a 2016 Harvard Business Review article titled “The Biggest Cybersecurity Threats Are Inside Your Company,” Marc Zadelhoff, general manager of IBM Security, reported that IBM research showed that 60 percent of all attacks in 2016 were inside jobs, carried out by both people with malicious intent and “inadvertent actors.”

It is an inconvenient truth that an employee who had revealed his sexual identity to his manager feared that he would face reprisal, and expressed those concerns to a friend via text message (this is a real case we shared with Guardian reporter Olivia Solon for the article mentioned above). Since August 2017, Uber, Twitter, Google and Oracle are all facing lawsuits relating to harassment or gender bias.

It is an inconvenient truth that some corporate programs produce unintended consequences that would be better understood sooner rather than later. Just ask the 5,300 employees fired at Wells Fargo because they created millions of fake accounts without the consent of customers because they wanted to meet internal sales goals.

It is an inconvenient truth that people act one way in formal meetings and another way on the company’s collaboration platform. It is also a reality that many companies do business in a highly regulated world and must be able to prove they are complying with those regulations, even in cases where there was no intent to be noncompliant. Similarly, many employees who are just trying to be more efficient do things that put their companies at risk. (“Hey third-party vendor, I just Slacked you that spreadsheet, — thanks for the help!”)

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Safety Is the Goal

In the same way that the vast majority of us appreciate the value of community policing and cameras to keep us safe, the vast majority of us accept that some level of visibility is required in the workplace to ensure we are safe from the myriad risks like the ones I’ve mentioned. If a female engineer is propositioned and harassed by her boss on the company’s collaboration network, how can she possibly be compelled to use that network, even if it is intended to spur collaboration and innovation?

The reality is that companies must provide a safe, compliant and secure environment for employees, customers and other stakeholders. If they don’t, they could face dire consequences. Uber founder Travis Kalanick is no longer running the company he founded. Uber is now the subject of five active FBI investigations and has lost at least $20 billion in market value because of reports that its corporate culture is mired in malfeasance. Google has a divided workforce based on leaked memos that exposed a culture of gender bias and sexual harassment that will take a long time to repair.

Most companies and managers use technology monitoring to give their employees the confidence and assurance that the company they work for cares about protecting them and manages risk responsibly. Yes, the technology can be used as a weapon and manipulated, but a well-designed monitoring program will have effective and objective oversight.

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Responsible Use Improves the Lives of Employees

We emerged from Plato’s cave a long time ago and live today in a complex, interconnected world. Rather than assuming that a technology that could be misused will be misused, let’s embrace the fact that it can be used in a meaningful and responsible way to improve safety and security in the workplace, and thereby improve the lives of employees. The repercussions of an interconnected world are playing out. We see this now with pending enforcement of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and you can expect much of the rest of the world to follow the EU’s lead. We will also see new markets arise as a result of such sweeping reforms.

We are headed toward a future comprised of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and we now have intuitive enterprise collaboration monitoring that anticipates, protects, suggests and generates insight for both individuals and companies to help them compete and win. Optimism so often spurs great innovation — and that is where I choose to start.