Software can tell you what your employees do, where they go, and with whom they interact. But are you simply collecting Big Data, or acting like Big Brother?
Ever wish you knew more about what your employees do all day? There is a high-tech solution to that particular problem: employee-tracking software.
The sheer amount of data you can gather with this kind of software is impressive. Programs like ActivTrak can tell you what websites your employees frequent at work, or how they use company-issued devices. Organizational tracking systems like TeleNav Track, on the other hand, allow you to monitor and manage remote employees from afar. And that's just the tip of the iceberg--if you can think of it, there's probably a way to track it.
Such seemingly endless data mining opportunities raise the inevitable question: Are you simply collecting Big Data or acting more like Big Brother? On the one hand, employee-tracking systems can give you a detailed understanding of employee behavior, and a clearer sense of the strengths and problem areas within your business. But they come with the potential costs of violating employee privacy or, at the very least, creating a culture of paranoia in the office.
Before you dole out microchip trackers at your next team meeting, here are four things to consider.
What is it that you want to know?
There are some upsides to knowing exactly what your employees are up to, according to Ben Waber, CEO of the data collection firm Sociometric Solutions, but you need to be clear on what exactly you'd like to know.
Sociometrics uses RFID chips embedded in ID badges to track employee behavior, collecting data on everything from employee location to the type of interactions they have with one another. The company’s chips know where employees go on their breaks, with whom they interact in the office--even how they speak to co-workers and colleagues. The chips don't record conversations, but they do live-stream tones and intonations which are then interpreted by Sociometrics software.
Sound creepy? Waber says knowing how and when employees interact with one another can be immensely helpful for business owners and team managers.
One Sociometric client discovered that team members who encountered one another accidentally on breaks returned to their desks feeling more socially connected and were subsequently more productive--they completed tasks 25 percent more quickly than before. As a result, the company decided to schedule regular breaks when team members could all socialize together.
Transparency is key.
Whether your office turns into a happier, more productive place--or the paranoid dystopia of George Orwell’s 1984--depends on how upfront you are with your employees, says Fran Dirksmeier, global asset manager at G.E. Healthcare. G.E. produces the AgileTrac system, which allows healthcare professionals to monitor clinicians’ habits and work patterns--primarily to improve hospital hygiene, Dirksmeier says.
"I don’t think anybody likes being tracked, but [you] can’t manage well what you can’t measure well," he says. Explaining to employees that you intend to use the information as a learning tool, and not a means of reprimand can go a long way, Dirksmeier explains.
Keep it anonymous.
Employees fear that being tracked will jeopardize their jobs, says Waber. By collecting anonymous data and not singling out individual employees, business owners can help to mitigate the fear among employees that their livelihoods are at risk.
Waber explains that Sociometric analyzes statistically anonymous groups of three or more employees to disguise specific identities, and never turns over personal information to the employers.
When employees feel like they are being spied on, it "undermines all that we are trying to do," Waber explains. Sociometrics even allows employees who don’t want to participate in the data collection process to carry dummy badges that contain no RFID chip--so the bosses never know, he says.
Do what feels right.
Trust your gut--especially when it comes to monitoring employee behavior, says Waber. He adds that the information gathered by companies like Sociometrics can be "extremely valuable" to employers, but that an abuse of that information could be detrimental for all involved.
"It’s all about leadership," says Dirksmeier. AgileTrac, unlike Sociometric, puts employers in control of their own data. The hope, he explains, is that administrators will use it as a teaching opportunity--not as an excuse to spy on or sack their employees.
But when it comes to the legal dos and don'ts of employee spying, there aren't many restrictions. The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act prohibits the unauthorized interception of private emails, yet the definitition of "authorized" gets a little fuzzy. In the past, safety concerns have trumped employee privacy.
According to Waber, the rules are still being written when it comes to employee-tracking practices; there is simply no precendent for this kind of observational technology. All of which is to say: If you're going to track employee data, track it responsibly.
FRANCESCA FENZI reports on entrepreneurship, technology and small business news from San Francisco. Her work has previously appeared in TIME, USA Today, Pop City and The Northside Chronicle. @FrancescaFenzi