We’re Being Watched At Work: Is it Big Brother, Or A Helping Hand?

By Susan Kelleher

The Seattle Times

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Fascinating look at the popularity of software programs which analyze data, employees and clients to improve a company’s productivity.  But when does the watching get to be too much. One business owner describes how in a matter of seconds, she can tell who’s killing it, and who’s falling behind on her team. From drilling down to see how many prospecting calls each salesperson has made, to the number of emails they’ve sent she knows what’s happening when she is in and out of the office. 


Joyce Juntunen balances an open laptop on her left forearm like the appendage it has become.

It’s with her throughout the day as she checks the progress of her 20-person sales team at Bizible, a tech startup in Seattle that helps companies gauge the success of their marketing efforts. And it follows her home at night where, sitting on the couch with her husband, she can call up a series of charts and graphs to gauge the team’s success and view trends.

Juntunen started her career in sales when it was a numbers game: Call as many people as possible on a brokered list, and snag as many sales as you can. Now she plays a numbers game of a different sort, one driven by data that are changing not just her workplace but the way she works.

“It’s transformed the profession,” she says, calling up a screen on her computer that provides an up-to-the minute visual snapshot of what and how her people are doing.

In a matter of seconds, Juntunen can tell who’s killing it, and who’s falling behind.

Juntunen drills down even further to see how many prospecting calls each salesperson has made, the number of appointments they’ve made, the number of emails they’ve sent or had generated by a computer on their behalf. She can tell which emails were opened and when, and which got traction.

All told, Bizible uses about 10 software programs to analyze data about itself, its employees and its clients to improve productivity and determine which marketing efforts are paying off.

It might feel like Big Brother has taken over the office. But Juntunen says there’s nothing nefarious or creepy going on here. In fact, the salespeople have the same information, and can change what isn’t working to be more successful.

“Data enables better measurement and more accountability,” says Juntunen.

If any of this troubles Bizible’s employees, they can express their displeasure to the boss on Fridays, when the company sends out a weekly survey via email, or later when the monthly happiness survey lands in their inboxes.

The real-time measuring and feedback, and the ability to make a case for change with the click of a mouse, is what the job of a high-tech salesperson looks like in 2016. And it’s what a lot of work is going to look like.

Forget the blistering personalities, the blowhards who intimidate by volume or the office Iago with his whispered asides.

Forget the dim bulbs who suck up to the boss, or meetings where contemplative people feel cowed. If you’re looking to win the day at the office, your best friend could very well be the laptop and the numbers it brings to your fingertips.

“Big data,” it’s called, and it’s recasting jobs in everything from retail sales and medicine to education and professional sports.

“There’s really big things going on,” says Ellie Fields, vice-president of product marketing for Tableau Software, a Seattle-based firm that is helping create a new type of work culture, and a new type of employee, by making data easier to understand and analyze.

“We call it the culture of analytics,” says Fields, whose firm turns raw numbers into dashboards of tables, charts and other visuals to answer questions that can be quantified.

Amazon and Microsoft, along with Google, are driving the big data revolution with cloud storage, remote servers that allow massive amounts of information, everything from baby pictures to the financials of multinational corporations _ to be stored off-site and analyzed from anywhere there’s an Internet connection.

The vast quantities of data being uploaded to the cloud represent a small fraction of the information that eventually will be collected and accessed from anywhere. Already, the tools for analyzing that data are changing work itself, leading to the creation of what one analyst calls “the quantified employee.”

Data analysis is far from new. Companies have done it for eons. The big change is the scale, the speed and the breadth of the information, and how it’s used. Instead of hunches and gut feelings, decisions are guided increasingly by data, and productivity measured by an increasing number of metrics.

There’s already a slew of examples:

-Amazon, perhaps the most data-driven company in history, measures everything it can, including the number of steps employees take to retrieve items in its warehouses.

-McDonald’s, a leader in analytics, uses data to predict customer behavior so closely that employee shifts and even where they will stand at any given time are driven by numbers.

-UPS delivery drivers are monitored by sensors in the trucks that track everything from driving speeds to stop times.

-Some retailers use floor sensors to track the movement of people in their stores, while others have experimented with ID badges fitted with microphones, location sensors and motion detectors that measure how employee interactions affect productivity.

As analytics continue to infiltrate the workplace, some question whether it represents a fundamental power shift away from the employee.

“Data processing and storage speeds double every year,” says Elisabeth Jones, an analytics consultant and lecturer at the University of Washington’s Information School. “Over 10 to 20 years, we’ll have all the speed and storage we need to run this stuff. … It all comes back to the issue of power: Who gets access to the data sets? The people who can pay for them.”

Jones says people act differently when they know they’re being watched, and the potential to control employees merely by watching them is real.

“Humans do things for reasons,” she says. “Not everything can be reduced to numbers. There’s lots to the human experience that can’t be measured that way. It’s important what you’re monitoring, and where the data are coming from. After you pile it up, does it tell you what you think it’s telling you? You can reach conclusions about ‘why’ when you only have ‘what.'”

Others are more optimistic, seeing opportunities to improve safety by monitoring and managing fatigue in dangerous professions and empowering employees to make themselves more valuable by giving them fact-based feedback.

Analyst Josh Bersin, a frequent author on the subject of corporate human resources, says 21 percent of adults in America are already using technology to track their activities, and the use of analytics by human resources departments is merely an extension of what we’ve already embraced.

All agree that the experience of being a quantified employee depends largely on the values of a company, and how it uses its data.

Fields, of Tableau, sees data as a way to democratize the workplace and keep it from resembling the soul-sucking cesspools of hubris and hopelessness portrayed in the “Dilbert” comic strip.

“The idea with ‘Dilbert’ is that you’re supposed to do something, but you’re really not empowered to do it, and it might not even be the right thing to do. And then the boss … is totally clueless,” she says. When data become a part of the culture, she says, employees at every level can make a case for change in a nonthreatening way, and the person in the corner office is held to account as much as a shipping clerk.

“The classic bad environment is (when) the person who shouts the loudest gets across,” she says. “If you can enable people with tools to think … and to break through, then the person who shouts the loudest doesn’t always get the floor.”

There are, of course, those among us who always will take things to a new level, seemingly intent on proving that everything has a dark side.

“Do you suspect that your employees are abusing business work hours to get ‘personal business’ done? You are not alone.”

That’s the pitch for employee-monitoring software. It continues: “Our computer monitoring software will log and record what your employees type, who they talk to, documents they open, transfer and print, what websites they visit, software titles they run, emails they send and receive, and even screenshots of their actual online activities.”

An added bonus: The monitoring can be done from a remote location in stealth mode. In short, it’s spying. And, it’s becoming the norm.

The American Management Association says about 43 percent of companies monitor employee emails, track how much time they spend on the phone and whom they’re calling. Some companies use this information to predict who is likely to quit within the year.

Other companies use data analysis to determine who gets in the door.

Dozens of HR analytic companies, including People Analytics Corporation, have turned career tests into a massive database that companies use to select future employees based on the traits and characteristics that define their top talent. When candidates apply for a job posting, in the span of about 12 minutes, a company can use analytics to find the “best” candidates, comparing them to people already working at the company. You can be out of a job search before you even know why.

The fact is, employers already know a lot about us, and will know even more as analytics infiltrate more HR departments, giving employers information about what we’re doing for them, and how we’re doing it. They’ll know more about how we learn, what motivates us, when we’re most productive and whether we’re better in a group or flying solo.

John Boudreau, a professor at the Marshall School of Business and a research director at the Center for Effective Organizations at USC, writes, “The rapid adoption of sensors, autonomous vehicles and artificial intelligence will trigger a fundamental rethinking of work. HR leaders must be equipped to manage flexible and transient workforces that can adapt to continual change, including frequent job loss and obsolescence of skills.”

Let that sink in for a minute. All that productivity data being analyzed could show that your job is better performed by a robot.

So what does it feel like to be watched so closely? I decided to find out, and installed an app that would measure my productivity throughout the day.

The result was not pretty: I was not very effective or productive.

I suspected as much by the frequency with which I refilled the communal tea pot, but the productivity app made it official when it spit out the numbers: I was procrastinating.

Or was I? Sure, I drank a lot of tea, and talked to colleagues, and checked social media. But writing involves thinking and research and sharing ideas, right? And isn’t monitoring social media part of my job? Maybe all those great ideas I’d been having all day would soon come pouring from my fingertips onto the electronic page when they were fully formed.

The app didn’t see it that way. As far as the app was concerned, I had lost sight of my one priority for the day: finishing this story. Clearly, I could use help from Cold Turkey. Or Timeful. Or StayFocused. Or any number of the dozens of available apps that would help me monitor and control my behavior so I could take care of business.

Getting straight talk from a dispassionate piece of software was a strangely humbling and enlightening experience. The productivity nanny did exactly what I’d asked it to do: account for my time. At least it was me/us doing the busting.

Which got me thinking: What if my employer had delivered the same information to me? What if my employer were tracking whom I talked to, on the phone and in the office, and tracking what I had said? What if they knew the frequency and exact times I had filled and drawn from the teapot? The amount of time I spent in the bathroom, or walking to the printer? What if they ran the numbers to determine whether I was a help or a hindrance to the bottom line?

The questions left me unsettled, but also curious about whether the numbers would make me a better employee and a happier person by objectively pointing out my strengths and weaknesses, and showing them on a dashboard for me to see at the end of the day so I could get more done.

Bizible’s CEO, Aaron Bird, who measures so much in his company, shared his wisdom on the subject:

“You can have all the technology in the world, but if you don’t know what to do with it, it’s useless,” he says. “If you’re measuring people’s success, who cares how they get there?”

Thank you, Aaron! After all, I did take care of business. Otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this story.

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