As consumers, people have long been concerned about how tech platforms harvest and utilise their data. Recent years have seen these concerns creep into our workplaces, as employee data becomes an increasingly valuable commodity.
By now, most of us have gotten used to the algorithms that dictate the content we see on our various social media feeds. The eerie feeling of talking aloud about a product, only to open your phone and see an advertisement for it, is no longer a remarkable occurrence.
Surveillance capitalism in the workplace
More recently, the data-mining techniques that retailers have long used to peddle their products have crept into the workplace. Algorithms and tracking software once reserved for the digital economy are now being used by employers to keep tabs on their staff, and legislative controls around this practice have not quite caught up.
“There’s this idea that employees are now a data point, and we’re collecting so much data on workers. The issue is, we’ve got a lot of information around consumer data and its risks and issues, but not a lot from a worker data perspective,” says Reanna Browne, Founder & Director of Work Futures, and member of AHRI’s Future of Work advisory panel.
“I would say generally that management overestimates the level of control and understanding they really do have about the technology and the data we have, and the full implications of that.”
As technology and datafication become more deeply rooted into our ways of working, it’s crucial that it is reflected in organisations’ policies and processes – regardless of industry.
“The digitisation and datafication of work is ongoing, and I don’t think we’ve really scratched the surface of it,” says Peter Williams, Director of the Deloitte Foundation, and also a member of AHRI’s Future of Work Advisory panel.
“Most of the time, when we talk about datafication, it’s related to knowledge workers and people who work in a technology-mediated environment. But what I can see now is that increasingly, we will be seeing digital technology deployed across pretty much all industries.”
How are employees responding to datafication?
Employees and unions have been lobbying for years for more clarity around the collection and use of their data. In light of heavy media attention on recent high-profile corporate data breaches, their concerns have only intensified.
“Organisations need to make employees aware of the extent and the reasons for collecting their information. And if HR are not doing that, unions are talking about it,” says Browne.
“I work with some unions, and what they’re talking about now is how they bring worker data to the forefront of new kinds of worker protections. Workers are now considering the collective use of data – they’re creating new data trusts and co-ops to leverage data and use the same tool against employers.”
Browne offers some examples of how both unions and individual employees are reclaiming the data that has been collected from them and using it as a means to advance their own interests.
“For instance, gig workers are coming together to pull data to work out the best driving times. Another example was a crowdsourced app created by a worker where the data was [encrypted], and they actually measured their real working hours.
“That ended up pushing the employer to say, ‘Actually, our employees are really working X amount of hours, not what we thought they were.’ They’re using the data as a mechanism to push back against employers and organisations. It works two ways, right? And unions are starting to really think about this too.”
Datafication and workplace culture
Evolving and nurturing organisational culture is almost always high up on HR’s agenda, but all too often the influence of external technologies and the data they harvest are left out of the conversation.
“There’s a new work relationship emerging, and the new player in the room is tech vendors and developers, which are fundamentally influencing things like culture,” says Browne.
“Organisations need to make employees aware of the extent and the reasons for collecting their information. And if HR are not doing that, unions are talking about it.” – Reanna Browne
“[HR] tends to take technology pretty much off the shelf. And when we take off-the-shelf technology from vendors we’re implicitly inheriting part of the culture of that vendor’s team. And often, we don’t even know that the data [from this technology] is being collected, packaged up and sold as profiles.
“Rolling out these kinds of technologies implicitly changes some of those dynamics around trust,” she says.
To control the risk of ready-made technology impacting an organisational culture, it’s essential that HR is appropriately educated around each and every software that the business is working with and the nature of their data collection practices.
As well as data collected by external suppliers, employers should be mindful of how their internal data collection policies might impact their culture and values.
With the rise of remote and hybrid work, many organisations have implemented some form of monitoring software to ensure that their employees are present and active during work hours. However, this strategy can have a hugely detrimental impact on an organisation’s reputation, says Browne.
“I think workers are starting to push back against surveillance with little trends, like mouse jigglers – the little machines that tap your mouse to keep your light on – which is just an absurd [symptom] of a surveillance reputation,” she says.
“Employees are now talking about this in things like Glassdoor reviews: ‘Do they pay well?’, and then, ‘What’s their level of surveillance, and what kinds of worker protections do they have?’”
“Long-term, if you don’t trust your people, they will sniff it out really quickly. And you will find it hard in this labour market to get people who want to work with you, because they won’t perform well if they feel like they’re being watched.”
How can HR use data for good?
As the trend of rebellion against employee data-harvesting continues, it’s likely that some employers will begin to market themselves as low-AI, human-centred workplaces in order to attract the best talent, says Williams.
Of course, gathering a certain amount of employee data is necessary to satisfy legal and Fair Work obligations. And, as Williams points out, harvesting non-essential data is not necessarily a bad thing – as long as it’s used for the good of the employees themselves.
An example of this is the data gathered from worker surveillance. One benefit of this software that is not often taken advantage of by employers is the ability to identify employees who are working extra hours, as well as those who could be slacking off.
“I got asked years ago, ‘Aren’t you worried about people using Facebook during work time?’ And I said, ‘Actually, I’m more worried about people doing work during Facebook time.’ I don’t have a problem getting people to work. I’ve got a problem getting them to stop,” says Williams.
“I’m concerned, not so much about people not working, but about the health and welfare of people who are overworking. If I’ve got somebody who’s working 15 hours a day, seven days a week, they could be the next person who’s going to burn out or have mental health issues.”
“Governance models around data very rarely include the workers involved in those processes. And I think that’s something that is being missed.” – Peter Williams
As well as using data to keep an eye on the wellbeing of employees, organisations can harness its power to identify untapped potential within its workforce, he says.
“There’s a system that we’re trialling at Deloitte called Reejig, which looks at [addressing] skill shortages by asking, ‘Do we know what skills our people actually have?’, ‘How do we find people who are looking for development?’ [It might be] that we’ve already got skills that we need, which we didn’t know we had.”
Taking opportunities to use data for good in instances like this is a great first step to ensuring that your data policies are working for both your organisation and your people. However, Williams says that coming up with and implementing these processes must be a collaborative process in order to be successful.
“Governance models around data very rarely include the workers involved in those processes. And I think that’s something that is being missed.
“It’s about your social contract with your people. [If an employer says], ‘Employees are our most valuable asset, but I will watch them every second of the day,’ then they’ll think – ‘You said that, but you’re doing this.’ You need to be very clear about how you use the data and what you’re going to use it for, and you need to involve your employees and workers in these discussions.”
By crafting data policies that leaders can be certain their staff are comfortable with, organisations can transform the perception of datafication from an ominous threat into a driver of positive change.
Need help finding ways to use your employee data for good? AHRI’s short course will arm you with the skills to acquire a sound foundation in people analytics and transform data into insight.