Collection No 6

Future of Work

Privacy in the Connected Workplace

Four principles for designing dignified surveillance.

In 2009, a company called Sociometric Solutions distributed sensor-packed badges to employees of several Bank of America call centers, collecting reams of data about employee location, speech, and movement. The researchers cast all manner of computational social science incantations on the data, and they discovered that better-performing call centers had employees with strong working relationships. Bank of America implemented break structures to enable more employees to take breaks simultaneously, encouraging the formation of close-knit groups. The project was a tremendous success: call volume improved, time per call decreased, and job satisfaction rose.

The Bank of America project hints at a new era of workforce analytics, fed by rivers of data, connected workplace applications, and immense benefits. As a designer I am excited about the possibilities, but as an employee I hesitate, because I sense a tidal wave of unintended consequences.

Peak, an application for teams and managers to track each other, uses the slogan “stop disrupting your team.” The application monitors employee interactions on disparate productivity platforms, such as Google Drive, Basecamp, and Dropbox. Peak’s war on micromanagement is noble, but its slightly-more-than-a-peek reporting capabilities are worrisome. The professional mind begins to strategize. Who can see this information about me? Will this impact my compensation? What happens if I opt out? Can I even opt out? This is how rational people respond to surveillance, and surveillance is inherent in the connected workplace and workforce analytics.

The success of the connected workplace, and the dignity of its employees, depends heavily on how we design these tools. What follows are a few employee-centered principles for the workplace of the future.

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Treat Personal Data as a Democratic Mechanism

Individual transparency benefits peers through knowledge sharing and helps leaders implement informed strategies. The connected workplace should help employees understand that their personal data can be a powerful tool, with the potential to improve their experience at work as well as the productivity of their team or organization in service of the strategies and initiatives they deem beneficial.

As a design principle, personal data should belong wholly to individual employees, who should never find themselves exchanging it for security, compensation, or other benefits. Consequently, designers should consider how personal data might expire or become anonymous over time.

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Let Users Customize Their Participation

Surveillance systems always want more. Their desire to produce the most accurate and complete picture is at odds with the nuance and noise inherent in human relationships.

Interpersonal relationships are cubist and ever-shifting based on context, and the connected workplace must be designed accordingly. Individual systems should allow participation to be customizable, even if the resulting data sets are noisy and imperfect. Our research on workplace surveillance technology shows that customizable participation is one of the most influential ways to communicate trustworthiness to employees, even for those users with no interest in customizing their level of participation.

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Expose Methods

Our research also shows that users are usually more trusting of a system, and forthright with their personal data, when they understand how the system will monitor them. This is sometimes more important to employees than why they will be monitored, especially in cases where monitoring requires the employee to wear a sensor or to add an additional step to a workflow. Exposing methods allows employees to construct a mental model of the system, resulting in a greater degree of comfort when participating or deciding whether to participate.

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Be Provocative

Privacy savant Evgeny Morozov encourages designers of connected products to be electronic provocateurs who offer alternatives to legalese-addled terms of service documents, privacy policies, and other means of informed consent that completely fail to inform. Systems should provoke employees to actively shape their participation in the connected workplace. Managers and employees should have substantive dialogue about—and recourse against—surveillance systems, as seen in Mark Shepard’s “Sentient City Survival Kit,” Josh On’s visualizations of social networks and power structures, and other works that make up the field of “adversarial design.”

Workplace analytics tools and computational social science will revolutionize how we work, make progress in our careers, and balance our lives. By using and building on the above principles, we can create compelling systems that safeguard the dignity of employees as well as boost their agency, efficacy, and organizational trust.

Clint Rule

Clint gets excited by difficult questions and complex systems—especially those involving personality, identity, organizations, and control.

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