When the author Neal Stephenson published “Snow Crash” almost 30 years ago, these sentences still sounded dystopian: “[Marietta] decides that it will take her between 14 and 15 minutes to read the circular. (…) She skimmed the circular, turning the pages back and forth to pretend she was reading a previous paragraph again. The computer will record all of this. “

Stephenson’s novel describes an employee who changes her behavior because she knows that everything she does is recorded, analyzed and communicated to her superiors. In 2020 this is a reality. This is not only due to the shady monitoring software that more and more companies are using to monitor employees in the home office. Even the largest and most renowned provider of office programs is making employees increasingly transparent: Microsoft recently started calculating a “Productivity Score”, or PS for short. Among other things, it records in detail who works in a company and how.

Advertisement

It reads harmlessly on the company’s website. “Let me make it clear: the PS is not used to monitor work,” writes Microsoft manager Jared Spataro. It sounds different in Microsoft’s own manual. “Monitoring User Productivity with Productivity Rating” is a subpage of the Help section. Although Microsoft points out that “parts of this topic may have been machine-translated”, the German version actually does it quite well: Microsoft provides companies with so much data about individual users that the term surveillance is justified.

Administrators can see whether and how employees use Microsoft programs such as Word, Excel, Powerpoint, Onenote, Outlook, Skype or Teams. You get access to dozens of data points and see, for example, when and for how long someone opens the software, how many files they call up, share with colleagues or send as attachments, on how many days they are active in teams chat and at how many digital meetings he turns on the camera or shares the screen.

“Microsoft’s software constantly sends usage data to the group, potentially enabling seamless monitoring of many work activities,” says data protection activist Wolfie Christl. He is currently working on a project on digital surveillance in companies that is funded by the Austrian Chamber of Labor. He not only considers the recording of individual employees problematic, but also fundamentally criticizes the evaluation. “I doubt these productivity metrics say much, but I fear many companies will still try to meet the arbitrary targets that Microsoft sets.” Christl writes on Twitter of “esoteric metrics” and describes the Microsoft 365 Office suite as a “full-fledged monitoring tool for the workplace”.

Advertisement

Bennett Cyphers of the civil rights organization Electronic Frontier Foundation and Eliot Bendinelli of Privacy International warn that the PS can create false incentives and intrude deeply into the privacy of employees. Digital surveillance endangers the relationship of trust between superiors and employees, it threatens a “data protection nightmare”.

David Heinemeier Hansson, one of the founders of the software company Basecamp, which partly competes with Microsoft, becomes even clearer. “Holy fuck”, he writes. “The word dystopian is nowhere near strong enough to describe the hellhole Microsoft has opened with it.” The PS is the most invasive monitoring project for the workplace that can be used across the board.

Microsoft sees it differently. “The PS is an opt-in experience that gives IT administrators insights into the use of technology and infrastructure,” said a spokeswoman. This enables organizations to get the most out of their technology investments. The PS can be used in compliance with data protection regulations. It is an optional function that does not calculate a rating for individual employees. In addition, the data can be anonymized if desired and would be automatically deleted after 28 days.

Advertisement

On the one hand, Microsoft is right with its objections: no company is forced to use the function. The PS also only analyzes the alleged productivity of the entire workforce; no value is assigned to individual employees. On the other hand, the answer misses the core of the problem. Because as soon as the PS is activated, Microsoft collects massive amounts of usage data from individual employees by default.

The value between 100 and 800, which is supposed to measure productivity, relates to the entire company – but the data is recorded and displayed individually. Administrators have to take action themselves if they want to anonymize the evaluation. Employees cannot object to monitoring and receive no notification when managers view their statistics.

“I have the greatest doubts whether this move by Microsoft is compatible with the European General Data Protection Regulation,” says the green network politician Tabea Roessner. The data collected ultimately allowed many conclusions to be drawn about individual employees. “Decent working conditions have been fought for hard in Germany.” Personnel and works councils would have to be included when digital programs were newly introduced in the workplace. “This is especially true with such monitoring software.”

Advertisement

Regardless of whether it is legal to activate the PS in Germany, companies should be careful. Several studies in recent years show that digital surveillance can increase the efficiency of employees. However, this is often at the expense of trust, satisfaction and psychological well-being. In the long term, corporate culture suffers and productivity drops.

Advertisement