Sanishtha Bhatia, XLRI Jamshedpur

The field of HR today stands at the footnotes of Taylor’s work on Scientific Management over a century ago. Taylor proposed that organisations continually monitor and measure employees to boost employee performance essentially turning workspaces into real world psychology labs. Today some of the largest global corporations such as Microsoft and Google are investing in data science, hiring a slew of Ph.D.’s in Industrial/Organizational Psychology, and speeding up their digital transformation to use smart AI and big data technologies to strengthen their talent management systems. The age of people analytics is here to stay, and it was well underway prior to the epidemic. However, in an increasingly virtual (and maybe solely virtual) world of work, the amount of data accessible to analyse and forecast employee behaviour will continue to rise dramatically, allowing for additional chances for controlling through technology and data.

People Analytics can generally be understood as the branch of HR committed to obtaining data-driven insights on an organization’s workforce. The digital footprints of employees can be converted to actionable insights into employee behaviour and help improve organisational effectiveness. With the right models, frameworks, and expertise the wealth of data that all new age organisations sit on can be meaningfully used to create data-driven decisions, changes, and a data-oriented culture in an organization. Essentially, people analytics is an intentional and methodical endeavour to make companies more evidence-based, talent-centric, and meritocratic, which should make them more productive.

Applications of People Analytics in HR

Source: McKinsey

One of the main objectives that organisations are focused on is improving staff performance or productivity. While firms do care a lot about morale and well-being, a lot of the concern stems from the linkages of these to performance which is the major goal. However, here is also where the “suspicious” aspect of surveillance might begin to emerge. With phones, sensors, Alexa, wearables, and the Internet of Things all capable of detecting and recording our movements, and possibilities to be really offline and off the radar becoming limited, things may soon become intrusive and Big Brother-like. For example, some businesses are considering implementing more intrusive monitoring software that can snap screenshots while employees are working and track people’s movements to track productivity and monitor a remote workforce. Not long ago, PwC received flak for developing surveillance to track whether employees were away from their systems.

Another area where people analytics can be applied is employee experience. Typically, organisations have dealt with employee experience by way of annual surveys focused on job satisfaction or engagement. Although these elements are connected to work performance, the association is often minor (suggesting less than 20% overlap between engagement and productivity) and confounded with irrelevant aspects like individuals’ personalities. Another key drawback of these surveys is that waiting an entire year to understand shift in morale can be catastrophic, the fast-paced world demands a faster solution.

More frequent “pulse surveys” and employee listening tools have begun to gain traction in this area, and they may be swiftly leveraged to motivate actual action that benefits both employees and enterprises. Glint, CultureAmp, Qualtrics, and Peakon are all able to let firms “pulse” their workers on a regular basis in order to assess engagement and employee mood in real time. Employee listening has been around for a while, but in the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, it has exploded in popularity. Employee listening is being used by companies including Rabobank, Merck, and National Australia Bank to learn how their workers are dealing with new remote working arrangements, how their support requirements are evolving, and what their preferences are for returning to work. Companies can gain valuable insights into what’s important to their employees in a rapidly changing environment by using techniques like stratified sampling (an alternative to random sampling that allows data scientists to partition a given sample into “strata” in order to make population predictions) and text analytics on free text comments (software that decodes words and word frequency into emotional sentiment or different psychological traits) and discussion boards. These also help avoid survey fatigue and preserve anonymity at an individual level.

An application of people analytics essentially critical to the current situation, is if new technology can be utilised to keep people safe by monitoring their mental and physical health. It is not just the usual measures, such as temperature checking or social distancing, that may help employers make their workplaces safe and ensure a healthy reopening of their offices in the post-lockdown phase. Companies are integrating new technologies in a variety of ways to benefit their staff. If employees opt to share their data, wearables may now measure stress and anxiety. Chatbots that may be used to inquire about your emotional condition and offer suggestions. Obviously, the same knowledge that may be used to help or control people: if you know how someone is feeling, what their physiological and psychological condition is, you can use that information to help and improve them, or (hopefully not) manipulate and control them. When technology allows other parties or persons to acquire insight into your deeper emotional states, it leaves one vulnerable.

Employers are looking to adopt “track and trace” applications, such as those produced by Google and Apple in the United States, which were quickly applied by various countries (e.g., China, Singapore, and Israel) in reaction to the outbreak. Academics are also collaborating with wearable start-ups, such as Oura ring and UCSF, to transform the biometric data that individuals are already freely giving into a Covid-19 risk profile. These advancements can be considered to be the digital equivalent of having one’s temperature taken on arriving at the office or having a doctor on call to check for important symptoms. While these measures are controversial given their potential to invade people’s anonymity and privacy, they are increasingly being adopted by organisations, and it is becoming harder to distinguish between those that are digital and those that are analogue or physical, as the lines between our physical and digital lives blur.

The Road Ahead

So how can employees be convinced that their privacy will be safeguarded, and their data won’t be exploited for other reasons if such technologies become necessary under the premise of preserving the workforce’s health? This is where HR departments must step in and lead a discussion about employee trust, company obligations, and the ethical implications of any new technology, finding a balance between employee, management, and business demands.

Although we are still in the early stages of this digital revolution, there have been significant breakthroughs in each of the key verticals of talent management, with a variety of unique tools and technology that are backed up by research in certain cases. There is a real possibility to make work much better if leaders can build a culture of trust, respect, and fairness in their businesses, and use emerging technology according to the strictest ethical and legal boundaries (and that is not a tiny “if”).

When firms evaluate new technology or people analytics projects, it’s not enough to hope that ethics will be at the forefront. Companies should develop an ethics charter for people analytics that clarifies what they should and shouldn’t do, similar to how they have standards for the use of consumer or financial data. Organizations must approach the ethical and privacy subject full on to create and sustain employee confidence in the use of personal data. They must be upfront and transparent with workers about how they are utilising their data.

There’s little doubt that technology, along with the near-universal digitalization of work and work-related behaviours, has the potential to help firms monitor, forecast, and comprehend employee behaviour (and thoughts) at a scale never seen before. However, these same technologies, when used in an unethical or unlawful manner, allow employers to manage and manipulate people, breaching trust and jeopardising not just their independence and morale, but also their privacy. The only way to prevent this is for proper rules and regulations to be strictly enforced, ensuring that employees stay in control, able to permit companies to use their data (or not) and profit from whatever insights and information are obtained from it. There is no logical conflict between what is good for the company and what is good for the employee, to be sure. However, the desire to compel individuals to engage in specific behaviours or to exploit their personal information against them is more real than one may assume.

References: 2021. HR Analytics and Employee Engagement: What You Need to Know

MIT Technology Review. 2021. A flood of coronavirus apps are tracking us. Now it’s time to keep track of them. 2021. How My Boss Monitors Me While I Work From Home (Published 2020).

The Guardian. 2021. Shirking from home? Staff feel the heat as bosses ramp up remote surveillance.

Godwin, J., & Oura-Admin. (2021, June 2). UCSF Tempredict Study. The Pulse Blog. November 25, 2021, from

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