The (uncomfortable) rise of workforce analytics
by Alessandra Venier on 27 Mar 2020
The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak is forcing companies to turn to technology solutions, given that a significant part of their workforce has switched to working remotely. This abrupt shift in workforce and workplace organisation makes both the benefits and challenges of “people analytics” evermore relevant to business leaders and policymakers alike.
Firms are increasingly turning to what has been coined as “workforce analytics” or “people analytics” in order to track and monitor the behaviour of employees. By gathering information about their workforce, business leaders can make better-informed decisions to increase productivity and efficiency levels, or improve selection and recruitment criteria.
Employers deploy people analytics techniques through computer software, platforms and apps. These tools analyse internal company data such as emails and computer usage, or enable employers to keep track of employees’ movements and interactions in and around the office. Almost 80% of business leaders surveyed by consulting firm Accenture in 2018 said that using workforce data would help them to grow their business.
The potential of workforce analytics
According to Gartner’s Digital Enterprise 2020 Survey, 67% of surveyed business leaders agreed that if their company did not become significantly more “digitalised” by 2020, it would no longer be competitive. Therefore, combining innovative technology with a better understanding of the workforce represents an undeniable strength.
For instance, workplace analytics firm Humanyze demonstrates some of these benefits by gathering “data exhaust” - the data generated as a byproduct of online actions and interactions - left by employees’ email and instant messaging apps. This data allows management to assess their staff’s performance and interactions and ultimately make informed decisions and better allocate resources.
From the employees’ perspective, such data can empower them with an evidence-based track record of inappropriate behaviour that they could potentially be victims of, such as bullying or sexual harassment, allowing them to escalate it to higher management. Not least, these techniques can also highlight positive stories; for instance, Google’s Project Oxygen has been using some version of people analytics for over a decade to uncover and reward the practices of its best managers and provide coaching and mentorship for lower performers.
Gartner has shown that as employers continue to explore new “non-conventional” workforce analytics tools, “employees are increasingly comfortable with being monitored, especially if they understand how and why.” Accenture found similarly positive results, with over 90% of surveyed employees stating that they were in favour of the collection of data on them and their performance, if it meant “an improvement in their productivity, their wellbeing or other benefits”.
Uncomfortable ethical questions
Nonetheless, the research carried out by Accenture also revealed that although 60% of businesses use workforce analytics technologies “extensively”, only 30% of business leaders are “very confident” that their organisation is using the collected data in a “highly responsible way". The same research also points out that about fifty percent of managers admitted that “in the absence of sufficient legislation”, they would use people analytics technologies to “collect workforce data without taking additional measures for responsibility”.
These findings raise important ethical questions about privacy and trust between employers and employees. For instance, some companies are investing in a range of sleep-tracking apps in an effort to “monitor their workers’ health and wellbeing” for better productivity, while others, including banks and private-equity firms, use AI-powered platforms such as Behavox to analyse internal company data and emails to flag compliance issues. Barclays, in turn, faced considerable backlash and subsequently scrapped a system developed by software firm Sapience that tracked the computer activity of its workers.
People analytics still represents a pool of untapped potential for many companies, particularly during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. In fact, large-scale remote working seems to exacerbate the use of workforce analytics and employee monitoring. But, in the absence of a clear regulatory framework, how can companies effectively tap into the benefits of workforce analytics, while also safeguarding their employees’ rights?
Challenges for policymakers
The ICO, the United Kingdom’s data protection watchdog, advises employers to consider the potential negative effects of workforce monitoring, including reduced trust. The public body also stipulates that employers should ensure that staff are aware that management is monitoring their behaviour, and consider whether there exists a “less intrusive and reasonably practicable alternative”.
Recent research conducted by AlgorithmWatch notes that under national law, employers would need to get individual consent from each employee before running their analytics systems. The findings also highlight that employers deploying monitoring systems are likely breaching existing law, whether intentionally or not.
Given the scale and speed at which technology is entering the workplace, some governments are therefore moving to legislate in this area. For example, German Labour Minister Hubertus Heil has recently launched an “AI Observatory” to tackle how AI technology is changing work and employment, and to ensure that the use of AI in the workplace is done “together with employees and not against them”. Other proposals related to these emerging challenges are also gaining momentum, such as the “right to disconnect”, the “right to explanation”, and could alter the way in which companies are able to make use of their workers' time and data.
Against the current backdrop, the deployment of workplace analytics is set grow at rapid speed. Expect policymakers to pay more attention to it rather sooner than later.