Remote working means the rise of productivity-tracking tattleware

Billy Clark

In May 2020, Prodoscore, a California-based productivity software startup, reported that, based on internal data collected from its 30,000 users, remote working during the coronavirus pandemic was making workers more productive. They had noticed a 57 per cent increase in volume of email correspondence and a 230 per cent increase in time spent on phone calls, but a 22 per cent drop in accessing calendar apps, implying that fewer meetings – a notorious productivity killer – were taking place.
Prodoscore is part of a new wave of productivity tools, informally known as “tattleware”, that enable managers to monitor and time-track their employees’ activities while working remotely. Research consultancy firm Gartner estimates that by the end of 2020, 80 per cent of companies will be using monitoring tools to keep tabs on their employees, including their emails, social media messages and biometric data. These apps use these digital traces to create a profile of individual productivity.

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For instance, InterGuard, an app that can be installed on an employee’s computer without their knowledge, creates a detailed timeline of online activity and can record emails and keystrokes and take staggered screenshots. Until April 2020, Zoom included an “attention tracking” feature that allowed administrators to check if users were actively viewing an ongoing meeting or if the app was idle (this feature was later removed due to privacy concerns). Project management tool Asana offers the option to calculate an “influence” score for workers based on how many projects they share and invitations they send. The app also includes a feature called Workload, which lets managers see employees’ ongoing projects and reassign tasks if they feel a particular employee is overloaded.
Of course, white-collar workers are not the only quantified employees in the workforce. Long-haul truck drivers are monitored with electronic logging devices that keep track of their location and speeds to help them schedule sleeping and driving periods. Professional athletes are constantly monitored with activity sensors that track workload and fatigue.
These new tools are, of course, ripe for misuse when it comes to privacy and security concerns. But when used transparently and legally, they can provide a rich stream of information that allows companies and workers to understand and improve their productivity and engagement.
In 2016, mathematician Duncan Watts initiated a project with Microsoft dubbed the Organizational Spectroscope, with the goal of applying machine learning modelling to data including email metadata, office locations and job titles. Early results showed that it was able to predict employee satisfaction based on email response time and measure work-life balance from the volume of email sent outside of office hours. In research conducted at Facebook in 2018, psychologist Adam Grant found that employees who didn’t respond to the company’s two annual surveys were 2.6 times more likely to quit in the following six months.

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Perhaps the most fascinating series of experiments were conducted at the MIT Human Dynamics Laboratory by researcher Alex Pentland. Using an electronic badge capable of capturing a vast spectrum of behavioural data, like tone of voice and body language, Pentland studied more than 20 teams in settings including hospitals and call centres. The most telltale sign of a productive team was the level of social engagement between employees. More productive teams had more energetic conversations – not just with their leaders, and outside scheduled meetings.
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