People analytics during a pandemic: new opportunities?

As the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic pushes office work to digital platforms, employees are creating more, and more complete, communications data than ever before. Should companies view this as an opportunity to roll out new analytics tools?

Our class has often highlighted one of the major challenges of any sort of network- or communications-tracking tools, which is that much of one-on-one exchanges continue to happen offline with little-to-no digital footprint. However, the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has rapidly pushed most companies to all-digital work, which means nearly all employee interactions can now be tracked and analyzed*. One MIT Sloan Management Review article, Managing the Flow of Ideas in a Pandemic, by Professor Sandy Pentland, states that making use of this is essential to optimizing performance in our new model of working. I disagree, and have both operational and ethical concerns about rolling out new people analytic tools during the crsis.

The specific software solutions highlighted by Professor Pentland are, like many of the products discussed in LPA, pretty cool stuff: they offer opportunities to identify bottlenecks in communication flows, nudge individuals to adopt more inclusive videoconference etiquette, and coach speakers on their tone of voice.

But, also like many of the products we’ve discussed in LPA, there remain big questions: how will employees behave if they know a piece of software is constantly listening? Should the data be used to make performance management decisions? How can we communicate the rollout of these tools in a way that maintains employee trust and engagement?

In the midst of a global crisis, there is another question one must consider: is a pandemic and pending global recession really the time to be rolling out new, invasive people analytics software? My point of view is no, and that companies should be cautious about adopting Professor Pentland’s pandemic-era advice for the following reasons:

  • These tools are built to recognize behavioral data from “normal” times, but these are not “normal” times and we cannot universally hold employees to “normal” standards
    These have been trained on employee behavior during non-pandemic times, which are drastically different from employee behavior today. Most concerning for me is what will happen for employees that are taking on caretaking roles for family members with COVID – do the models penalize them for sending emails at odd hours? Taking extra time to respond to communications? Looking less engaged in videoconferences? (Even those of us without caretaking responsibilities have been known to look at bit glassy-eyed on Zoom when a particularly ominous New York Times alert pops up.) The answer to any of these questions could easily be yes, even though most of us would agree that to do so is ethically problematic.
  • As companies contemplate mass layoffs and furloughs, it will be natural for employees to misinterpret these tools as ways to generate data for headcount reduction choices
    As we’ve often discussed in LPA, it’s natural for employees to assume the worst when they hear about more “invasive” data collection – and today, the worst feels particularly close-at-hand. Employees are buckling under new levels of chronic stress and uncertainty, and an added stressor such as a videoconference analyzer or email tracker might undermine the very performance that it is seeking to optimize. We don’t need to give our employees yet another thing to worry about.
  • Careful communication is key to successful implementation of these tools, but employees are already overwhelmed with COVID-related communications
    All-company emails might be at an all-time high for many companies; as the situation evolves daily, leaders and HR teams need to prepare and disseminate updates daily. All of us, on both the receiving and sending ends of these updates, are on information overload. The type of massive communication campaign required to effective roll out one of these tools, especially given the propensity for misinterpretation (see above), is beyond the reach of most HR teams to manage, and beyond the reach of many employees to comprehend.

I tend to believe that it will be possible to mitigate and contain many of the privacy concerns that we discuss in LPA, and that the software solutions highlighted by Professor Pentland could become ubiquitous in the future – but now is not the time to hasten that implementation, even if the massive quantities of data being generated prove tempting. Instead, companies allow employees to opt into coaching tools, with the explicit promise that company leaders will not access individual-level data or analyses.


* Phone calls and texts on personal devices remain a blind spot, at least for now (thank goodness)


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Student comments on People analytics during a pandemic: new opportunities?

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful post! Though it’s certainly tempting from a data collection perspective, I agree that now is not the time to roll out these kinds of tools and would echo the reasons you highlighted as the primary reasons why. I would also add that ramping up quickly on large amounts of data may actually be bad for the companies that make these products, as well as for the companies that use them and their employees. Scaling issues aside, as you said, these are not “normal times” and their models are theoretically built for such. Will the insights that the tools yield hold any weight, now or even after the pandemic? This could be damaging to customer relationships and the industry overall. Could the makers of the products train algorithms based on massive amounts of work-from-home data only to find that the models are not predictive when everyone goes back to work? As for the users, even with the real-time feedback tools for video calls that are designed for immediate improvements, I question whether those individuals who already struggle with Zoom would become even more overwhelmed, causing them to interrupt or raise their voice even more!

  2. My initial reaction is that change is taxing, and that in our current pandemic, our ability to absorb more change is at its lowest. However, if we are to believe that change is a good thing thing, and that this could improve our efficiency and quality of life, when is the right time to do this? Is it lumped in with other organizational change, because the incremental, marginal discomfort is minimized? Or should these changes be carefully spaced out to not overburden individuals. This can also help you see the independent effects of individual changes, but it can make an organization fee like it is constantly in flux

  3. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiments expressed in this post! To turn this moment of us experimenting with a 100%-digital work environment is not the time to be playing with fire with new monitoring technologies – it’s too much to handle all at once from a change management perspective! That being said, I do think that it’s important to note that shifting to this totally-virtual reality will mark a paradigm shift in the way we think about virtual work. For a while companies have been trying to figure out 1) whether flexible/virtual work arrangements can be effective, and 2) if they are implemented, how to do them best. Understanding both of those requires a little experimenting with getting people to actually try working in a 100% virtual way – and this shift in work is the perfect opportunity to do so! I think as workers get more used to working virtually, we’re going to see innovations in the way people think about and handle their virtual work…and as such, people analytics practitioners will get new ideas of things to measure and new behaviors they’ll want to examine and experiment with. I, for one, am curious to see the innovation we’ll see come out of this time period.

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