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Reframing 'Being Watched at Work'

by Greg Moran

On Thursday, May 31, Aware was featured in BBC World Service Business Daily’s podcast titled: Being Watched at Work.

The conversation that the BBC is helping to precipitate—at the intersection of data transparency and privacy, is a hugely important conversation, and its thornier bits were amplified recently by scandals at Uber, NBC, Cambridge Analytica and others. We are grateful to BBC Daily and Ed Butler for including us in this important discussion.

With the onset of a global conversation surrounding data (think: GDPR), we whole-heartedly agree that companies need to be transparent in how leverage employee information. We were honored to offer our perspective on employee listening, and I wanted to take the opportunity to expand on the sound bites that were included in the broadcast.

Monitoring is Happening; And That’s Nothing New

Let’s take a minute and think about this. Employees have been watched at work for years. Not only is some level of monitoring ‘normal’, most of us would feel very unsafe/insecure working for a company that did no monitoring. For example, nearly all company email accounts are monitored for sensitive content and shared files.

Furthermore, most corporate buildings leverage badge technology that require employees to swipe in and out of buildings, as well as video surveillance, etc. Generally, in moderation, employees accept some degree of surveillance—particularly when they connect the dots to their own safety and the security of their employment.

As our CEO, Jeff, explains on the podcast: this technology is not used because companies are suspicious that all employees are doing wrong; rather this technology is used to safeguard and protect employees, customers, and managers in the instance that an individual may have malicious intent.

I wrote a piece called The Case for Optimism in Employee Monitoring this past November about this very topic. Here’s an excerpt from the piece:

Let me start by letting everyone know (sardonic spoiler alert!) that this horse has been out of the barn for a very, very long time, but it's a very serious topic that we MUST continue to discuss. For various reasons, at least since the industrial revolution (and long before), employers have monitored employees. We've always hated it... or at least mildly resented not being 'trusted' by our employer.

What we don't always do as good a job of is connecting the dots between employee monitoring when we are freaked out by it and employee monitoring when it has protected us or someone we care about, or saved the company from a damaging incident.

So, now we have better technology available and we have an opportunity to take this whole question of know what is going on inside a large enterprise 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.


Companies Must Leverage Insights from Collaboration to Succeed

It’s true. Employee monitoring enables the collection of data from which advanced practices such as artificial intelligence and machine learning can glean actionable insights. This will increasingly be a critical part of staying competitive (embedded in what Porter calls operational effectiveness, for you strategy hounds out there).

Structure and Discipline Enable Freedom

Employee monitoring enables companies to adopt new business technologies and practices—such as enterprise collaboration platforms or working remotely—and maintain security and compliance.

The right amount of structure and oversight actually creates more freedom. Think about interstate highways or the autobahn–with no structure, there’d be carnage. The right amount of structure enables the high speed movement of a lot of people relatively safely.

Another example is Southwest Airlines—they offer low fares making air travel attainable to those who might not afford it otherwise. They can achieve the efficiency necessary for low fares not because they are unstructured, but precisely because they are very disciplined and follow procedure religiously.

Just as we accept structure and discipline in these examples, we should also embrace workplace monitoring of collaboration platforms—with proper rules—in order to fully empower employees to collaborate and innovate safely.

Collaboration is the Oil in the Enterprise Machine

Employee monitoring can empower an emerging field of people analytics.On the BBC podcast, Ben Waber from Humanyze, explains that people analytics can enhance productivity and connectivity in organizations by looking at decisions like lunch table placement or locations of coffee stations. The work at Humanyze reinforces the tangible value of collaboration and the insights that can be gleaned from it.

At Aware, we focus on digital interaction. Rather than looking at the effect a physical structure has on collaboration, our technology analyzes the way individuals behave and interact digitally. Through thoughtfully produced deep learning algorithms, individuals, managers and organizations can gain incredible insights.

It is nothing more and nothing less than what we talk about with augmented reality or human/machine partnership.

Career planning, employee sentiment, organizational design, change management strategy, culture reinforcement, benefit plan design—these are just a few of the topics that can be better managed with an accurate understanding of employee communications within a company.

Each is worthy of a blog of its own and we’ll be releasing broad examples of insights in our downloadable Human Behavior Risk Analysis report.

As Technology Evolves, Transparency is Critical

“But too many, this technology has sinister potential.”

—Ed Butler, Host, BBC Business Daily

Well, of course! It has ever been so that with a new technology comes people that will abuse it—and I think that principle is at play in this conversation. Has the world wide web enabled more benefit than crime? Will there be abuse of collaboration tools within companies? Will monitoring be misused by some?

We all know the answer is yes, and yet we accept the increased risk when the benefit is overwhelmingly positive. The crux of this global conversation about data privacy and preventing misuse is an effort to lay the regulatory and ethical foundation of big data.

One of the really cool aspects about transparency (meaning everyone is aware of the procedures in place), and the well thought-out monitoring of a healthy collaboration environment, is that it is more likely to prevent and root out abuses than an unmonitored environment—both top down and among employees.

Generally employees are asking for this technology, that's the reaction that we're seeing. If you think about email, email has been around for dozens of years now and monitoring for email has been in place forever. And our technology… is able to do that sort of stuff for these modern communications.

— Jeff Schumann, CEO, Aware

We’ve already seen hundreds of examples from working with our customers that illustrate when employees and managers are up to something or are in a situations they don't think is right… they talk about it.

At one organization, an individual revealed his or her sexual orientation and was subsequently harassed via private messages from colleagues.

In this scenario, if the harassment continued over time and went unaddressed, the victim may have felt unsafe and unwelcome in the workplace, leading to disengagement and potentially toxic behavior. However, if an organization quickly identifies the harassment through workplace monitoring, leaders can intervene appropriately—preserving a healthy and supporting workplace culture.

In the context of workplace monitoring, it is the virtual ‘talking about it’ that we think overwhelmingly creates more benefit than risk.

At Aware, we believe in the power of collaboration, monitoring, people analytics, and actionable insights—and we also believe in transparency and its power to empower.

Topics:Employee ExperienceEnterprise CollaborationInformation Security