Along with every other aspect of daily existence, the COVID-19 pandemic has upended the experience of work, with scores of employees all over the world completing daily duties in their home offices (or at their kitchen counters).
According to Nicholas Bloom, Professor of Economics in Stanford’s School of Humanities and Sciences, 42% of the American labor force is now working from home full-time. This undoubtedly poses challenges for businesses in terms of charting productivity, but the news on that front has been encouraging.
A Mercer survey of 800 businesses found that, in the wake of this work-from-home shift, 94% of employers surveyed reported no dip in productivity with over a quarter of those employers seeing an increase in productivity. Even after the pandemic has passed, 83% of the businesses surveyed plan to put more flexible work policies in place, allowing more people to work from home or letting them adjust their schedules.
These are impressive figures, especially considering the number of people inhabiting the roles of employee, parent, and teacher’s assistant throughout any given weekday. Regardless, this new surge in work-from-home scenarios has led to a glut of apps that ensure workers aren’t playing games when they should be sweating over spreadsheets.
“These ‘productivity tools’—with Orwellian names like DeskTime, SPYERA, Time Doctor, and Hubstaff—have exploded in sales amid the pandemic,” Jacob Silverman writes in The New Republic, “while largely remaining under the public radar.”
Some of these efforts are already coming under legal scrutiny, as the Electronic Privacy Information Center filed a complaint with the FTC alleging that Zoom, “intentionally designed its web conferencing service to bypass browser security settings and remotely enable a user's web camera without the knowledge or consent of the user.”
Add to that list of potentially creepy players Microsoft 365, which recently expanded its Office Suite 365 to include an administration-level monitoring tool that tracks employee activity. These "Workplace Analytics" provide quantified numbers and stats on worker activities down to details like which component of the Office Suite 365 was used and at what frequency.
“On top of that, Microsoft says managers will have the ability to track ‘productivity scores’ and ‘set up, implement, and measure long-term customer adoption, change and transformation initiatives,’” writes Mehreen Kasana in her critique of the rollout in Input Mag. “This kind of obsession with benchmarks may not necessarily boost productivity but it certainly demonstrates how OK Microsoft is with the invasiveness of surveillance methods like this one.”
Kasana points to a host of charts, percent scores, graphs, comparison indexes, and other metrics that expose a worker's virtual movement without truly accounting for the contextual complexities and nuances of remote work. “Workplace Analytics will do the spying for you but it won't explain that a worker may have turned away from the computer to tend to their children or pets.”
It’s easy to see how giving managers the power to track how employees spend their time—including how they engage with software products, how they collaborate with coworkers, and how much work they are doing on mobile devices—would be attractive from a business perspective, but it’s easier to see how this approach plunges into a dark place.
Trust is a key component of a rewarding employee experience and as a larger portion of those experiences are had outside of the traditional office setting, it’s important to strengthen trust in both directions. Employers need to be able to trust that employees are working diligently to move organizational goals forward, and employees need to feel that trust.
In her Forbes article, “HR, Here Are 3 Ways You Can Rebuild Trust And Improve The Employee Experience,” Heidi Lynne Kurter points out that while technology has given HR professionals the power to streamline tasks and focus on creating a better employee experience, “many are putting more emphasis on traditional metrics rather than nurturing relationships and the potential of their workers.”
Kurter turns to a Topia survey that reveals 58% of employees define a great employee experience as being empowered and trusted. The paradigm shifts forced upon companies by the pandemic offer an opportunity to empower employees and build trust. Giving employees the flexibility to work remotely as their schedule allows is a two way street of trust, and while organizations will feel the urge to leverage tools that track how that time is used in a granular fashion, shifting the focus to the quality of work being done might yield better results.
Near the tail end of 2019, Microsoft 365 reported over 200 million active users.  Assuming a sizable fraction of those people are using it’s tools as employees, it’s up to their employers to decide if they want to trust their employees or Microsoft 365’s productivity score instead.