A few days ago, Forbes broke the news that Microsoft unveiled a new feature of its 365 services software that allows employers to secretly monitor and “score” their staff on productivity.
On the surface, this is an obvious up-sale tactic by Microsoft to make clients further dependent upon its eco-system. Also obvious are the many privacy concerns that arise from employer surveillance.
Yet, what’s less obvious, to most, are the negative implications such slick snooping could have on the company’s performance: via its corporate and risk cultures.
Corporate culture represents an organization’s values, ethics, vision, behaviors and work environment. Risk culture represents the organization’s values, beliefs, knowledge, attitudes and understanding about taking risk.
Taken together, these cultural landscapes govern the degree and quality of performance, profits, sales, etc.
Thus, it’s easy to see how a software that offers a performance score could be framed as a solution to monitoring remote workers in a COVID-19 era. Yet, it’s also easy to see how both secret surveillance and a ‘hidden,’ performance score could negatively impact values, ethics, behaviors, environment, attitudes and beliefs, as well as security.
Just think about it. Suppose you’ve lots of ideas concerning new products and services your company could introduce. Yet, exploring these ideas requires a departure from (if not a complete abandonment of) the Microsoft suite you traditionally use. Innately, the exploration also demands a less risk-averse attitude towards innovation on you and your team’s part.
But knowing you’re scored on how often you use PowerPoint or Teams could make you hesitate or even bury your ideas.
And what about if you own a business and you or your investors embrace this sort of spying? The privacy discussion is something you might ignore because, well…many business owners don’t care about employee privacy anyway. But what of the distrust and risk version you’ve set as cultural tones?
Pandemic or no, the fact to be faced is that human beings don’t perform well under surveillance.
A classic Yale study from the 1960s, for example, showed that human beings are not only willing to harm each other without monetary incentives, they don’t mind shocking each other to death if it means getting a few points from the boss.
And a more recent, post-Edward Snowden, study shows surveillance silences minority opinion voices—the very ones that often have new and breakout ideas.
Indeed, mass government surveillance studies show that a host of perverse psychological behaviors are exhibited by people when surveillance is present. These behaviors range from internal back-biting and toxic behavior to actions suggesting people default to stereotypes and prejudices.
To be clear, Microsoft isn’t promising to revolutionize monitoring. Clearly, the company’s aim is to simply deepen product uptake by clients. The negative, external effects of this campaign, however, could be substantial.
To better understand them, consider that the Productivity Score gives managers the ability to use at least 13 data points of Microsoft eco-system (i.e, Outlook, Office, Teams, Sharepoint, etc.) in evaluating each staff member. In particular, the score shows the extent to which staff are using Microsoft products correctly and efficiently to undertake work over the preceding 28 days.
Nonetheless, there are technical challenges, both in relation to the concept and in relation to how it works. These include:
—Intractability and unknown validity of the score. Microsoft is not known within the world of ratings and scoring. Bigger names include Moody’s and S&P, the corporate bond ratings agencies. Even Yelp (the restaurant, review app) has a bigger name than Microsoft in the scoring arena. Yet, scores need elegant and correctly specified modeling techniques behind them to be meaningful. They also need expert validation to make sure the Productivity Score doesn’t to the firing and promotion of the wrong people. That begs the question: How can Microsoft credibly offer such a meaningful score to clients profitably, when it appears to simply be an add-on feature?
—Scores would require industry and niche-tailoring to be meaningful. Furthermore, there’s a Grand Canyon of difference between assessing productivity in a large, mature business and a smaller, high growth business. The larger business can separate performance into many categories, with the Productivity Score, for example, playing one small part and having one set weight. A smaller business, however, is often driven by deals or deal-like objectives. This would mean the Productivity Score might be its primary performance system. Yet, such companies often work project-by-project, and certainly not solely on the basis of 365. The point is that the usages of Microsoft 365 would inevitably differ (dramatically) between companies in different industries, segments and sub-segments. However, nothing said by Microsoft thus far assures users of a niche-tailored experience.
—To make the Productivity Score tractable and meaningful, Microsoft must also dictate the criterion. The way out of the above challenges is for Microsoft to implement a one-size-fits-all template for scoring. Indeed, that could be the company’s plan. For example, collaboration could be given certain weights (by Microsoft) and measured using Microsoft metrics. But, in general, is hard to measure. In other words, it’s not clear whether a certain number of hours, a certain number of ideas, a certain number of people or a certain amount of paper in the waste basket is the best way to measure collaboration. So a Microsoft client is forced to choose. Indeed, specifically on questions related to innovation, collaboration and productivity are far from resolved and they certainly ways of being measured and even defined in different industries.
—People don’t do statistics or margins of error well. Any score has a statistical element to it and supervisor would need to understand that. But how would a manager know whether a “good” amount of usage is 70% of 65%? The same can be said for margins of error. Suppose the boss says you need to use 365, 50% or more of the time. But there’s always a possibility your usage is noisy—such as when you leave the laptop on or switch devices. That’s a margin of error. The point is: None of that makes sense to normal people. Thus, it’s easy to see how this could get confusing, frustrating and downright debilitating. It interrupts work flow, stresses staff and could lead to departures and missed targets while everyone’s figuring it out.
—The Score doesn’t translate into money easily. Let’s face it: right now, businesses are concerned about money—making money, saving money and not losing money. How does a score of say, 62% on collaboration, translate into profits? Sales? Customers retained or gained? Perhaps you’ll say it doesn’t directly, but offers a wider picture. Okay, great. Why then should staff feel their employment, promotions, bonuses, etc., depend upon it? How can founders assure VCs who demand some evidence of a high Productivity score? To use a basketball analogy, you get paid for putting points up on the board. Yet, the Score seems to assess you’re running up and down the court.
—Scores can be gamed. There seems to be nothing preventing staff from learning what activities lead to better or worse scores. They can easily lean in to the ones that that boost their perceived performance.
—Imbalances with staff not dependent on 365. How will companies reconcile performance by staff subject to the Productivity Score and those who aren’t? It seems clear Microsoft wants to encourage looping these non-365 users into their eco-system, but will that make sense for a given business?
—AI will ultimately mess things up. People sell you on AI because it’s cheaper for them to service you with—not because it works better or is better. In the end, larger companies will become too lazy to have individuals monitor the 365 behavior of other individuals, so they’ll use AI. Indeed, that will usher in a demand for AI, which is clearly where Microsoft is headed with this. But AI is can’t resolve any of the issues just stated and it also comes with problems of its own. In particular, one would be asking a digitally generated personality to evaluate the more complex behavior of real personalities—many of which will be creative, erratic, irrational but brilliant. Since AI cannot (and likely will never) mimic neuroplasticity or the mind-heart connection integral for human performance, it’s just an economical solution with a fancy title. Ultimately, it will cause more problems in evaluating performance than it solves.
—It consumes cognitive resources. Apart from everything else, if staff and their managers are concerned about a new workplace snooping platform, their minds will be distracted from productive endeavors. Indeed, there’s ample evidence that surveillance adds substantially to workplace stress and to declining health. The particular mechanism seems to be that staff become overloaded. Their cognitive resources get depleted. The end result is that stress leads to more mistakes and declining productivity.
Without a doubt, a new age of remote-working is being thrust upon the working world—largely by technology companies and their investors, who hope to profit from it. It’s clear the new normal will require a different type of management supervision. Yet, it’s not clear that plain vanilla, spying software is a sensible solution.
Lost in the conversation is a redesign of how performance is measured anyway. Assumed is a false dichotomy: that is, a model of zero staff monitoring and one of Big Brother. But why so? Can’t performance be based upon what’s ultimately delivered?
To be clear, the Microsoft 365 feature is optional and is “opt-in”. It would seem that until Microsoft’s clients have a better handle on addressing the above problems in their own best-interest, opting out is a smarter way to go.