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Analysing the distributed workforce

Tue 31 Mar 2020

Remote workers produce a reservoir of data for employers to feast on. But should they?

For organisations new to workforce productivity tools like Slack or Microsoft Teams, the reaction is pretty much universal: How did we manage before? 

These collaboration tools and others take the snappy, efficient qualities of instant messaging and place them at epicentre of working life, unifying the previous patchwork of applications into something more like a tapestry. Employees can talk, discover, act and share with speed. Companies become infinitely more productive.

Many, particularly your “cloud-first”, companies have been using these tools long before Covid-19 and have found the remote working transition seamless. A great many more were forced to spin them up overnight. 

Once the pandemic is overcome, almost all of the world’s companies will have a stronger productivity stack behind them, one that will not only make them more productive when normal service resumes, but more insulated to shocks like these in the future. 

Yet, according to some experts, these huge gains will be a footnote on what is to come. Behind each and every one of these all-sharing, all-chatting workforces are treasure chests that grow bigger with every click, share and tag. Within them lie a wealth of secrets that could unlock yet more benefits to employers — if they choose to open them. 

Organisational network analysis

Tools like Slack, Teams, and G-Suite don’t just thrive off data, but produce oceans of their own via purpose-built APIs. Organisations, especially traditional ones, will increasingly combine this activity with monitoring tools to ensure distributed workforces are working optimally: who is speaking to who; what are their skills, what they contribute and activity spells, for instance. 

If systems are organised effectively, this reservoir can be used by HR departments to produce a company-wide fingerprint that marries interaction, productivity, sentiment and other data. Which, with the right analytics, can be transformed into powerful organisational maps: allowing senior leaders to predict congestion and identify new bridges or roads to be built. With machine learning thrown in, predictions can also be made about what this map will look like in years to come.

Safety and ethics

Ethically, organisational network analysis is grey and thorny. Employees embracing remote working and their digital pillars leave crumbs of data in their wake. It’s up to employers how much of it is scooped up and how it is used to make decisions. 

Applied properly, workplace network analysis helps employers ensure staff are re-skilling, to monitor and improve employee relationships and help forge a more engaged workforce. In the wrong hands, we could be about to witness one of surveillance capitalism’s more sinister byproducts: the surveillance company. An entity that turns the microscope on its own employees to squeeze productivity and profit.

“The concept of network analysis is going to become really important over the next year or so,” says Daniel Hulme, CEO of Satalia, a company that tries to help others leverage this sort of passive data and more “active” (e.g survey) data in an ethical way. 

“Organisations are going to want to see how information is flowing across the organisation, where they have silos or people not accessing the information, or making decisions that are not propagating throughout the organisation. The concern is that companies might see employees as a resource to squeeze more from.”

Even if companies act with the right motives, expect employee pushback. Barclays recently rolled back a computer monitoring system called “Sapience” that tracked employee engagement and productivity, because of an internal backlash. 

Profit and purpose

In his own lectures, Daniel says tomorrow’s companies will only retain staff if they mobilise around a profit and a purpose. The same applies with workforce surveillance. Employees will only assent to being monitored in this fashion if the company has purposeful principles which it demonstrably adheres to – prioritising people and the planet over shareholders, say. 

Just take a look at the difference in reaction to Covid-19 between UK craft beer outfit Brewdog and pub chain Wetherspoons. Brewdog’s founders have forgone their salaries this year to help cash flow and protect jobs. Wetherspoons founder Tim Martin, on the other hand, has told employees to find work elsewhere. Which is more likely to get away with implementing a system like Sapience?

There is likely to be a lot of opportunism, too. If unregulated, life-changing decisions could soon be made based on the recommendations of  “Organisational Network Analysis as a Service” companies, which ground their services on questionable science. Governments will need to step in to make sure workforce analysis is underpinned by tight academic research so only sound insights are extracted and fair decisions made. 

If employee profiling doesn’t take into account gender differences, for instance, deeply flawed systems will emerge. Satalia found female employees are less active on its Slack workspace compared to males. Judged crudely, this implies females are contributing less, and an uninformed employer might be tempted to ask its female employees to step up their games. Models will have to use data sources that reflect the myriad ways we all go about our work. 

On top of that, there is growing research that suggests AI is not adept as predicting social or employment outcomes as initially thought. Even if we assume the capability is there, several other ethical concerns urgently need to be answered. It’s not at all obvious that we want HR to know an employee is about to hand in his resignation before they announce it. And what happens if secret relationships are discovered? There needs to be clear limits on the information a small group of superiors can access, but we’re not even close to defining what that limit should be.

Coronavirus has forced companies to adapt to a distributed workforce overnight. And the tools that have enabled them to do so will unlock a powerful new data supply that details employees’ every digital movement. Once we are through the other side of the pandemic, it is down to employees and governments to hold organisations accountable so this data is handled and used safely and ethically. Companies are watching us – but are we watching them?

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