//this is the mailchimp popup form

When HR Tech goes too far - Microsoft’s employee surveillance technology

BY -

Phil Strazzulla

November 25, 2020

Clearly we are fans of how HR Tech can make a meaningful impact on organizations.  From unbiased hiring to increasing employee engagement, software is typically a positive when done right.

However, there is a looming threat in our industry to essentially take the human out of HR Tech.  As a research team, we see this as a pitfall for lots of tools ranging from misused automated assessments, to bots that stonewall employees who need the help of an actual person.

Surveillance Tech

There has been a rising interest in surveillance technology, especially with the wave of work from home.  Individual managers, and old school corporate cultures have been worried their workers are not productive when not in the office, despite evidence that they are more productive and actually working longer hours.

Line graph of remote workdays blurring the boundaries of average workday duration in hours

(some interactive graphs here if you want to see more data)

While purpose built “tattleware” is one thing, now various HR and general business software vendors are building what essentially amounts to surveillance technology into their offerings.

I saw an illuminating Twitter thread yesterday on how Microsoft has now enabled managers to query the productivity of individual employees by looking at how they are using MS 365 (Word, Outlook, PPT, etc).

Screenshot of a Twitter thread explaining how esoteric metrics are built into MS 365 making it a workplace surveillance tool



As an individual, it may be interesting to see how my work patterns compare with my peers.  Maybe I spend way less time in MS Word than others in my role.  This could be because I’m a faster writer, prefer to write in Notepad, or maybe it means I actually do need to  increase my personal productivity!

It may also be interesting to understand how at an organizational level our company compares to peers.  Is our cross functional communication lacking?  Are we underutilizing different tools, or departments?  Maybe our focus on doing away with meetings means people spend less time in PowerPoint and more in Excel - not a bad thing.

But, things get a bit more nefarious when HR teams and managers can look at an individual’s productivity on a keystroke by keystroke basis.  There is a violation of privacy here that doesn’t foot at all with most capitalism based societies.

Screenshot of a Twitter thread warning how arbitrary metrics will potentially affect the daily lives of millions of employees and shop organizations function



Moreover, by adopting this technology for the surveillance use case, we are ascribing to what Microsoft thinks “productive” looks like.  I usually take a break every day mid day to workout and/or meditate.  Would I be penalized for not being at my desk during work hours?  I also don’t typically respond to emails from 8-11 AM, does that mean I’m lazy, or just trying to do some deep work at the high point of my circadian rhythm?

The point is, corporate culture has been moving away from old school proxies of productivity like face time and office politicking for a while now.  Surveillance tech threatens to erode the trust in an organization, re-define what productivity means based on a Microsoft Product Manager’s views, and drastically decrease the positive impact that HR Tech can have on people’s lives.

What to do about surveillance tech

People analytics in general is a very interesting subsegment of HR Tech that is allowing organizations to optimize their hiring funnels, figure out why women aren’t being promoted as quickly as men in their NY office, or why certain sales people always make quota.

This is powerful stuff, but with great power comes great responsibility.  If you take the human out of HR Tech, you will fail.  Your organization will become toxic, turnover will be an issue no matter how good your analytics are, and you will become the dystopian faceless corporation of Office Space.

Leveraging software can supercharge a People team.  Automation and AI are changing the way recruiters source, HR supports the org, and business gets done.  However, keeping a human perspective on how technology is going to shape your colleague’s lives is an essential part of any successful technology implementation.

If you buy HR Tech and want to be a part of our community, you can learn more here.

Latest posts

Venture Capital in HR Tech is Exploding...

Discover the opportunity, benefits, and why of the boom in HR Tech venture capitalism...

July 23, 2021

What HR can learn from Domino's digital transformation

Here is a case study on Domino's growth success specific to HR and HR Tech...

July 15, 2021

You've got 90 secs, HR Tech Advice from Mr. Wonderful..

We discuss the importance of concise, compelling pitches for HR initiatives...

June 18, 2021