Courts have historically ruled that employees have virtually no expectation of privacy in the workplace, on company-owned devices, or on company-managed platforms such as Slack. Still, spying on employees is a contentious issue — it brings to mind draconian workplace management philosophies and stifling atmospheres. A recent productivity survey from B2B market research company NewtonX found that not only do employees feel that workplace surveillance impedes productivity, but in fact, most executives feel the same way (68%). Despite this professed hesitance, there has been a recent uptick in the use of AI-powered text analytics software that “reads” employee communications to mine for sentiment analysis. From tools like Vibe that search through emoji and text sent on Slack, to data analytics tools like KeenCorp, that analyze employee emails.
In order to examine the effects of emerging tools that monitor and analyze employee activity, NewtonX spoke with executives and HR managers at ten companies, five of which engage in workplace surveillance, and five of which are staunchly against monitoring employee communication. The findings revealed a paradox: while employees and executives dislike the idea of spying on each others’ correspondence, when a machine does the spying instead, both parties not only accept, but embrace the tool. In fact, AI-powered workplace surveillance can actually lead to happier, more fulfilled employees. Perhaps even more surprising: surveillance can also help executives catch points of serious trouble in their companies before a true crisis hits.
Big Brother Wants Your Slacks and Emails
In the finance industry, employees are highly aware that any correspondence may be read by a manager or executive in the company. Indeed, Goldman Sachs has been a pioneer in the field, using sophisticated surveillance technology to flag keywords and phrases that are then passed on to a team for review. These keywords included swear words (outlawed by the company in 2010), emotional statements like “I am not happy,” and even the zip code of the SEC (we’ll leave the logic behind that one up to your imagination).
In less regulated industries, however, the expectation that keystrokes are monitored, emails are read, or private Slack messages can be flagged, can make employees feel micromanaged. After all, one executive from a company that does not monitor employee correspondence asked, “What’s the point? What are you trying to gain here?”
The answer, it turns out, is not as simple as wanting to pull a Huck Finn and see what others are saying about you. For instance, KeenCorp can chart how employees react when a new leader is hired or promoted, or when a new policy is implemented. One KeenCorp client had a branch office suddenly start glowing on its “heat map” (a form of flagging employee engagement), and when the company subsequently investigated the branch, it discovered that the head of the office had started a romantic affair with a subordinate.
Big Brother or Involved Parent?
Talent management company Crossover, takes webcam photos of employees every ten seconds and monitors keystrokes to come up with a “focus score” and an “intensity score.” For employees, this is the stuff of nightmares. But the executives interviewed for this piece who used communication monitoring software unanimously cited the number one reason for surveillance as catching problems early and before they multiply. When asked to provide examples of what a “problem” might be, they cited an unhappy employee, a leadership problem, an HR issue such as employees being paid late, or an issue stopping employees from finishing a project.
In other words, the goal of sentiment analysis in the workplace is not to punish employees for checking Facebook. After all, as one executive noted, “Who cares if an employee is working at maximum speed 24/7? The goal is for employees to be giving us solid final projects on the timeline we’ve requested.”
Indeed, when the executives who do not use tracking software were presented with the use cases cited by their peers, they were open to it. In fact, the idea of a machine doing the reading vs. a human made many of the executives interviewed more comfortable — it removed the gossipy, voyeuristic element of corporate surveillance.
Many companies use tools like OfficeVibe, which utilizes gamified anonymous employee surveys in order to gauge employee sentiment. However, because employees can lie or feel concerned that a complaint would identify them to a manager, some issues necessarily go undetected with survey systems. AI-powered text analysis tools, however, surface organic conversations to accurately give a picture in real time of how employees are feeling. Vibe, for instance, a program that searches through keywords and emoji in messages sent on Slack, reports in real time on whether a team is feeling disappointed, disapproving, happy, irritated, or stressed. This information can be incredibly valuable to executives and managers, who have a vested interest in reducing employee turnover, and ensuring that employees are happy and motivated.
It’s likely that tools like KeenCorp will become more and more common, particularly in corporate settings outside of regulated industries. While banks and healthcare institutions have used technology to monitor and flag employee communication for years, human surveillance felt too creepy to do on a large scale in other industries — until now. Companies that use AI-powered sentiment analysis tools internally will actually gain a competitive advantage, in that they can catch issues at their genesis, before they spread and sow discontent. This advantage is not to be underestimated: currently, companies lose millions of dollars every year in employee turnover — roughly $15,000 for every person who leaves. AI-powered corporate spying could be the key to reducing turnover, improving employee productivity, and identifying bottlenecks at their genesis.