Posey's Tips & Tricks

Office 365 Workplace Analytics: Helpful Tool or Big Brother?

While the feature can be a useful aid for identifying both positive and negative employee work trends, it also could lead to organizations spying on employees just a little too closely.

Recently, Microsoft has been offering some of its Office 365 customers a new capability called Workspace Analytics. The basic idea behind Workspace Analytics is really simple. There are certain activities that we all do throughout our workday. We send e-mails, attend meetings and collaborate on projects. Many of these activities either take place within Office 365, or they are scheduled through Office 365. In any case, it is possible to gain a wealth of insight into how a user spends their day just by analyzing that user's Office 365 activities. For example, you can tell how much time a user spent in meetings, how much time was spent answering e-mail and how many different people a user communicated with over the course of a day. You can even gain insights into whom a user is communicating with in an effort to get their job done.

Microsoft has taken this type of information and other data from Microsoft Office 365 and used it to create a series of quantifiable metrics that help to illustrate how employees are spending their time. This information can, of course, be used to drive improvements in productivity.

One of the things that Microsoft has made clear is that Workplace Analytics are not designed to track any one specific user's performance. Instead, they are used to reflect how employees spend their time, across the organization as a whole. Even so, there is one thing that really bothers me about Workplace Analytics.

A video on the Workplace Analytics Web site includes a statement that directly contradicts the idea of implementing Workplace Analytics in a way that ensures the privacy of individual employees. In the video, Chantrelle Nielsen, Microsoft's director of research and strategy (for Office 365), made the following statement: "You can use Workplace Analytics to answer questions like what do the best people in this organization, the people who are most satisfied and most productive... What is the kind of pattern that they work in, and what kind of rhythm seems to be predicting that outcome of success or happiness."

Maybe I'm way off base here, but the statement makes it sound as though it is possible to identify the work patterns of the top performers within a particular organization. If Workplace Analytics is able to do that, then what is to stop it from being able to identify those who do not perform quite as well?

Even if I am misunderstanding the statement that was made in the video, and Workplace Analytics is truly not able to identify the patterns of the top-performing people within an organization, such capabilities could presumably be added at a later time. After all, the data is there. In fact, I would not be a bit surprised if Microsoft's customers demanded such capabilities.

One of my first IT jobs involved working for a large insurance company. The company employed several hundred customer service representatives who were responsible for answering phone calls from policyholders, and helping those callers with whatever it is that they needed. At the time, I remember being absolutely flabbergasted when I learned that aggressive tracking metrics were being used to determine the number of calls that each customer service representative handled per hour, and the number of keystrokes typed by each person per hour. On more than one occasion, I heard managers raking customer service representatives over the coals because the metrics indicated that they were not performing to the level that was expected. Keep in mind that this was over twenty years ago. Just imagine how much worse the situation could be for those people today given the enhanced monitoring capabilities that now exist.

Another thing that bothers me about Workplace Analytics is that it at least has the potential to lead to bureaucratic nonsense. Imagine for a moment that somebody determined that in a particular company the top performers were spending four hours in meetings each day. If someone were looking solely at analytic data, they might assume that this was some sort of meaningful metric, and start demanding that other employees spend four hours of their day in meetings, even if there is no real reason for those employees to be sitting in meetings for that many hours. In a situation like that, a bureaucratic decision that is designed to enhance productivity could actually undermine productivity for some users.

Ultimately, it is possible that Workplace Analytics could end up being the greatest thing since sliced bread. Initially however, I am very skeptical of this new tool because I believe that it has the potential to intrude on employee privacy, while also giving managers an excuse to scrutinize employee behavior even more closely. I find this to be especially dangerous and disturbing for situations in which employees spend a lot of time working from home, especially if that work is done after hours.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 22-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.


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