As artificial Intelligence intensifies staff monitoring, Catherine Mazy considers the impact on productivity and privacy.

Key takeaways:

AI programs can keep ever-closer tabs on staff performance and potential timewasting.

Opting out isn’t always easy for staff to do, despite GDPR.

AI monitoring based on screen time raises new questions about what productivity is.

Employees might start to demand time back for working late or at weekends in return.

Knowledge workers have a new overlord: artificial intelligence. Until recently, such white-collar employees have been evaluated by the quality of their ideas rather than the quantity of widgets produced. But now, AI programs claim to keep tabs on how they do their jobs and when they are wasting time.

‘Blatantly, we’re being put in competition with machines. Computerisation is happening in the office context,’ says Dr Phoebe V. Moore, author of ‘The Quantified Self in Precarity: Work, Technology and What Counts.’

Most employees assume that their employer is probably checking which Web sites their staff visit, and retaining email logs (as possible evidence in any future disciplinary action or client dispute). Calls are also widely ‘recorded or monitored for quality assurance purposes.’ However, new software packages can now:

—take photos every three to 10 minutes via the desktop’s Webcam;

—take screenshots of workstations;

—track app use;

—log or count keystrokes;

—detect keywords, such as ‘football’ or ‘shopping’ or ‘résumé.’

—judge whether email content is gossip or work;

—use calendar apps to track billable hours;

—generate productivity, focus or intensity scores for employees;

—provide a dashboard to compare employee productivity scores and assess engagement levels.

Moreover, these programmes can be hidden in running processes. With the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, ’employees and consumers are supposed to have access to the data being gleaned about them. But that means you have to ask for it,’ Dr Moore says. Staff may opt out, though doing so isn’t always easy in an unequal employer-employee relationship.

A pilot program in the Netherlands using personal fitness trackers and calendar monitoring initially received wide buy-in from employees. The idea was to correlate time spent with new clients, their profitability, and signs of stress. ‘People became increasingly aware of privacy issues,’ says Dr Moore.  They asked, ‘why does my employer need to know so much about me.’ In this case, people started to leave the project.

Similarly, employees who are expected to work late or on weekends at home have not taken to the idea of being tracked around the clock by their company smart phone.  There is a ‘productivity’ bargain to be struck. ‘Employees are now expecting to be able to gain some time back in return for the time they spend working at home,’ says Paul Thompson, professor of employment studies at the University of Stirling, Scotland.

‘In electronic monitoring, what is monitored is typically those behaviours that are easily monitored, not necessarily what should be monitored.’

But productivity is a thorny issue. ‘In electronic monitoring, what is monitored is typically those behaviours that are easily monitored, not necessarily what should be monitored. They often give supervisors answers to the “what” question—what is the employee doing? —while ignoring the “why” and “how” questions,’ says Bradley J. Alge, associate professor of management at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana.

For example, customer service agents tend to be monitored and graded on efficiency, not effectiveness. ‘Taken to the extreme, customer service agents might be rewarded based on production quantity (how many customer calls were taken in an hour) versus production quality (what was the quality of the call, was the customer satisfied),’ Dr Alge says. ‘Customer service could actually go down because of monitoring and incentivising the wrong things.’

Furthermore, as Dr Moore notes, ‘a lot of the emotional work, the preparatory labour that contributes to productivity is intentionally overlooked.’ This, she says, might be addressed ‘if you are allowed to tailor your own subjective productivity; to how much time ‘I spend away from the monitor,’. It raises major questions about what productivity and performance really is.

The idea that such questions can be turned over to impartial AI algorithms is quite false. ‘Bias comes in because of the data you decided to collect, Dr Moore says, and the fact that staff may not be able to understand how it works. ‘It is a brave new world of the employment relationship.’

How should companies and staff ensure best practices? The UK industrial disputes body, ACAS recommends the following:

Write it down. Create written policies and procedures about workplace monitoring.

Don’t go overboard. Be able to justify the monitoring.

Communicate. Tell employees what information will be gathered and how long it will be kept.

Understand the law. In particular, stay on the right side of the Data Protection Act.

Security. Keep the collected data secure.

 

This article was written for FT| IE Corporate Learning Alliance. An earlier version was first published in HR Magazine.

Catherine Mazy is a freelance business writer, and former editor at The Wall Street Journal.

This article was written for FT | IE Corporate Learning Alliance.
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