A growing number of organisations are using new digital technologies to track their workers. They collect information about them and then use algorithms and artificial intelligence to analyse the data so that they can gauge workers’ suitability, assess their health and appraise their work. We call these technologies digital monitoring tools. Organisations expect these tools to help them make informed decisions and thereby optimise the value of the work.
In this report, commissioned by the Dutch House of Representatives’ Social Affairs and Employment Committee, we explore what new methods of tracking, analysing and giving feedback to workers mean for job quality. We look at three key dimensions of this concept (earnings quality, labour market security and quality of the working environment) and at broader social and ethical aspects. We investigate a series of questions: What does tracking mean for worker privacy and for creating an inclusive workplace? Do these tools in fact increase the value of the work? Our study consists of desk research, a literature review, interviews and an analysis of relevant legal frameworks. The study was carried out between June 2019 and March 2020, and contributes to the knowledge base under the agenda theme ‘Changing labour market’ of the Committee.
The specific impact of digital monitoring technology for job quality depends on many different factors. For one thing, the digital tools are not all alike. This report shows that there is now a vast array of tools available. We have grouped them into three categories: tools for staff planning and hiring, tools for managing and instructing workers, and tools for their support and development. Organisations can choose the level at which they wish to use the tools (individual, team or organisation) and at which of these levels they will provide feedback. They can also analyse data for retrospective purposes (historical trends in remuneration or absenteeism), to look for connections (for example between leave and absenteeism), or to predict trends (for example, future absenteeism).
Because organisations differ, each tool can impact job quality in a different way. That impact also depends on how organisations choose to deploy the technology. Despite the differences between organisations and tools, our research has revealed some broad trends.
Digital monitoring tools can be detrimental to workers
We see that various digital tools can be detrimental to workers. This may be especially the case when they influence decisions on a candidate’s or employee’s eligibility for a job, promotion or contract renewal. There are also concerns about privacy and discrimination. Specifically, as such tools can collect sensitive data, including email, location, movement and sleep patterns, facial expressions, and even hereditary traits. As a result, they may impinge on worker privacy. And although artificial intelligence and algorithms have the potential to mitigate discrimination in job application procedures, the risk of discrimination often remains.
Little proof of validity in some cases
In addition, the tools have only limited success when it comes to worker analysis. They are often used to analyse complex matters, such as suitability, motivation, health and productivity and base some of these analyses on questionable connections, for example between facial expression and personality, or between DNA and competencies. There is scant evidence for the validity of various tools. Our respondents caution organisations to beware of ‘cowboys’ operating in this market.
Human beings are difficult to ‘capture’ in data
Organisations must realise that it is difficult to gauge the value of work even with the help of digital tools, algorithms and artificial intelligence. For example, research has yet to reveal the extent to which we can predict human behaviour, such as the likelihood of an employee leaving an organisation or of a candidate being suitable for a job. Assessments using artificial intelligence rate applicants based on the attributes of the most successful employees, but in doing so, they create a similar-to-me-bias. Moreover, it may be underestimated how much those working quietly behind the scenes contribute to someone else’s high performance.
There is a risk that the analysis will focus only on what is quantifiable and ignore other essential activities or personality traits. Although a numerical workplace analysis can be useful, it may overlook other valuable aspects of work. Moreover, the underlying view that humans can be ‘captured’ in data produces too limited a notion of what valuable work is.
Monitoring technology changes work processes and workplace relations
Using digital monitoring tools can change work processes and workplace relations. Choosing to track a certain aspect of work puts that aspect under the microscope. The organisation and its workers then act accordingly, potentially producing unintended and, occasionally, counterproductive effects. While it may seem productive to monitor call centre performance by tracking the number of calls employees handle in a given time frame, the result may well be stressed-out employees and dissatisfied customers.
Organisations that focuses too much on maximising worker efficiency may end up driving up the workload and restricting the professional autonomy of their workers. Are employees at liberty to assess what a customer needs, or to consult with their colleagues when necessary? Giving employees a tool that counsels them on how to cope with their workload gradually shifts the responsibility for addressing such pressure from the organisation to the individual. This means that digital monitoring can be detrimental to cooperation, shared responsibility and even job satisfaction.
Broad public and political discussion about data in the workplace
The quest for a ‘data-driven’ workplace exposes a dominant rationale in which organisations use data to understand people. We are moving towards a labour market in which quantitative data will be crucial for predicting behaviour and for decisions influencing employment opportunities. The responsible use of digital monitoring tools therefore requires critical reflection, clear communication and dialogue. Organisations should not only be concerned about protecting privacy, preventing discrimination and addressing workload, but must also realise that their digital tools impact workplace tasks, processes and relations, and that monitoring affects the value of work. Despite the growing availability of such tools, the ‘data management’ of organisations is not always adequate and hinders the use of this type of technology. This means that relevant stakeholders still have the opportunity to anticipate these developments.