Big Brother in the workplace: Do employees accept behavior tracking?

Compelled to digitally monitor employee productivity, companies are investing in sophisticated behavior tracking tools at a breathtaking pace, giving little thought to how employees feel about those practices

Published: Jan 12, 2022 10:59:46 AM IST
Updated: Jan 12, 2022 11:20:30 AM IST

Darden Professor's research focuses on the future of work and the integration of novel technologies into the workplace, notes that the work-from-home reality has only accelerated the adoption of behavior tracking tools
Image: Shutterstock

 
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced many organizations to make a shift to remote work, artificial intelligence (AI) systems designed to track employee behavior and productivity were seeing a significant uptick in use.

A recent report by market research firm Gartner lists employee monitoring as one of the top technology trends shaping the modern global workplace.  According to Gartner, companies are increasingly embracing AI-enabled tools to analyze worker behavior in the same way they deploy AI to track and understand customer behavior.

Darden Professor Roshni Raveendhran, whose research focuses on the future of work and the integration of novel technologies into the workplace, notes that the work-from-home reality has only accelerated the adoption of behavior tracking tools. When the pandemic began in 2020, 30 percent of large employers adopted new employee-tracking technologies. A year later, that number jumped to 60 percent.

Compelled to digitally monitor employee productivity, companies are investing in sophisticated behavior tracking tools at a breathtaking pace, giving little thought to how employees feel about those practices. As Raveendhran puts it, “Companies are adopting novel technologies to make their processes more efficient and to improve their decision-making, but they often forget about their most important stakeholder group—their employees. So, the people get lost in the mix.”

Raveendhran’s latest research aims to shed light on the proliferation of behavior- tracking technologies in the workplace and deepen our understanding of the psychological impact those technologies have on employees. In a recent paper, “Humans Judge, Algorithms Nudge: The Psychology of Behavior Tracking Acceptance,” published in an academic journal Organizational Behavior & Human Decision Processes, Raveendhran and her collaborator Nathanael J. Fast of the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, examine the psychological underpinnings of employees’ acceptance of behavior tracking in the workplace.

The rise of behavior tracking technologies

Most of us are familiar with smart watches, wristbands, and patches aimed at the consumer market that use computer-based algorithms to continuously track information about users and provide feedback. Popular devices like Fitbit, for example, can track blood pressure, exercise, and calorie intake, helping users improve their health.

Increasingly, organizations are trying to leverage various behavior tracking tools—aimed at industrial, enterprise, and institutional markets—to motivate employees and monitor their performance and productivity. Thanks to new technologies such as geolocation, keystroke logging, screenshots, video recording, and access to webcams installed on remote PCs, employers can now capture terabytes of employee data. Cloud computing enables that data to be stored online, where it can be easily accessed and reviewed by employers.

Widely adopted enterprise applications such as Slack, Zoom and Google Drive provide employers with granular insights into how individual employees work. Microsoft Office 365, for example, has a “productivity score” feature, which lets employers track worker behaviors across 73 metrics, including whether they turn on their cameras during meetings and how often they contribute to shared documents and group chats.

Changing attitudes to behavior tracking

Historically, workers have been averse to tracking and monitoring, expressing concerns about a Big-Brother level of omnipresent surveillance that can lead to the loss of trust and motivation. But recent research shows that people are becoming more accepting of technological behavior-tracking at work. According to Gartner, only 10 percent of employees surveyed in 2015 were willing to accept their employers tracking of personal data. In 2018, that number increased to 30 percent and jumped to 50 percent if employers were transparent about the purpose of tracking.5

Intrigued by those trends, Raveendhran and her collaborator Fast set out to examine how technological tracking that’s fully automated differs from tracking that has some form of human involvement.

The study found that people are more willing to accept behavior tracking at work when it is conducted solely by technology—that is, computer algorithms—rather than by humans. What drives that acceptance? “When people are tracked by technology only,” says Raveendhran, “they are less concerned about potential negative judgment, which increases their subjective sense of autonomy.”

Findings from Raveendhran’s study have important implications for both employees and employers. As organizations increasingly use technology to monitor employees, to do it effectively, they might consider fully automating tracking, says Raveendhran.

“If the whole purpose of tracking is to motivate people to behave in certain ways,” says Raveendhran, “our research suggests that if we eliminate the human involvement then we can make tracking an informational rather than an evaluative experience. The key question organizational leaders should be asking is, ‘How can I use those new behavior tracking technologies to enhance informational outcomes for my employees?’ rather than, ‘How can I use those tracking technologies to keep monitoring my employees more?’”

Raveendhran’s research has broad implications. It demonstrates that it’s critical to be mindful of how employees react to not only behavior tracking but also other AI technologies that organizations are racing to adopt.

“If we’re not thoughtful about what happens to people when they interact with those technologies,” says Raveendhran, “we are going to face serious challenges at the people-and-technology intersection, including challenges around data privacy and the ethical use of data.”

As companies ramp up their investments in AI-enabled systems, understanding the psychological factors that influence people’s attitudes and behaviors toward those technologies is more critical than ever. Only then, says Raveendhran, can we glean practical insights into how to effectively leverage novel technologies to create positive impact.

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[This article has been reproduced with permission from University Of Virginia's Darden School Of Business. This piece originally appeared on Darden Ideas to Action.]

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