Workplace Monitoring: 3 Steps to Balance Employee Productivity and Privacy

Aug 22, 2022

Collecting and analyzing employee performance data can improve efficiency, but make sure employees see the value in it.

Long before the pandemic accelerated remote work, tools and technologies emerged to collect corporate “data exhaust.” This is the trail of often sensitive corporate and employee data that are artifacts of the common use of digital communication and productivity tools.

According to an Insider Threat Report, 94% of companies deploy some method of monitoring users. They do so despite the fact that very often workplace monitoring results in adverse employee reactions, low employee morale, and high turnover.

Ultimately, businesses and institutions want to leverage the data to improve operational efficiency. These initiatives unfortunately often overlook impediments to real improvements, such as employee satisfaction and employee privacy. But productivity is more than identifying trends and requiring employees to perform faster or more efficiently.

A company’s performance is based on the performance of its people, and for managers, that means elevating the human potential of your teams.

“Accurately measuring the productivity of workers has become something of a lost art,” writes Wharton professor Christian Terwiesch in Knowledge at Wharton. Employees are an organization’s most precious asset, but they are not machines. They need to benefit directly from collected data and be an active participant in the technology ecosystem to feel comfortable being digitally “observed.” After all, a company’s performance is based on the performance of its people, and for managers, that means elevating the human potential of your teams.

The Observation/Value Trade-Off

For employees to feel comfortable with their company digitally observing their work patterns, there must be inherent value in it for them. This is the “observation/value trade-off.”

According to a Harvard Business Review survey, “90% of employees are willing to let their employers collect and use data on them and their work, but only if they benefit in some way.” Employees want to know their data is being used responsibly and not against them. There are several crucial steps to planning and implementing a data-driven continuous improvement program to achieve the optimal observation/value trade-off.

1. Tell the Employees

We appear to be more open to measuring ourselves with quantified health products, such as Fitbit and Apple Watch, and letting those commercial health data analytics companies store our data. Internet search, e-commerce, and social media sites are also known to collect and oftentimes sell our data. As consumers, this is our choice. Employees, though, often feel they have a lack of choice; that policies are dictated by management.

Tell them what data you plan to collect, how it will be collected, why it’s important, and how it can improve their day-to-day jobs, making their effort feel more productive.

The first step is to share with employees the goal of the effort. Articulate a vision guided by a simple but powerful principle: you can’t fix what you can’t see. Passive observation and data collection will be one way to gather, measure, and improve performance. Tell them which data you plan to collect, how it will be collected, why it is important, and how it can improve their day-to-day jobs.

They may be concerned the data will be used punitively. Address the concern openly. Share all of the safeguards the management team will put in place to use the data for individual and team improvement.

2. Involve Employees in the Process

Bring the finance team into the conversation about how this data could be used. Let them share their concerns, but also ask them how they could benefit. Discuss how they and their manager can use these metrics to identify areas where they have process or application expertise. You could create forums in which process or application experts on the team can offer best practices to their peers through collaboration tools or other peer-to-peer mechanisms. Capture team members’ ideas; don’t make it just a one-time event. The feedback can be part of a regular process between employees, teams, and management.

3. Provide Value to Employees

Harvard Business Review notes that if companies wish to collect data, “they will need to forge a new ‘give and get’ relationship with employees and share more control with them over their own data.” Giving employees direct access to the data can provide valuable and tangible “evidence” of their expertise (and potentially help them advocate for themselves) as well as identify areas for improvement. Giving them control over their data can also illuminate best practices that can be shared among coworkers. Better insights make for more engaged team members, and this is mutually beneficial for the employee and the employer.

Whatever system you put in place, ensure it allows employees to view anonymized stats of their colleagues so they can see for themselves how they perform relative to their peers. This can be a powerful tool for self-motivation provided it is done right.

When employees have access to their own performance data as well as the performance of their team, they’re empowered with knowledge. This enables them to collaborate with their team and manager to unlock opportunities for continuous improvement and elevate their own potential.

Arming employees with their own performance data also puts them in the driver’s seat during one-on-ones and performance and salary review time. And for remote employees who may worry about the lack of face-to-face time, this data helps them demonstrate their effectiveness, reducing the perceived advantage of physically being in the office. Remote work is here, as is collecting, observing, and analyzing corporate data exhaust. Companies have an opportunity to adapt with practices that improve the bottom line and enhance the employee experience.

By Jay Bartot