At Microsoft’s annual Ignite conference in October, the company previewed a slick new tool called Productivity Score. During the virtual presentation, a senior product manager said the feature provides “insights that transform how work gets done” by showing employers how workers use Microsoft 365 services like Outlook, Teams, SharePoint and OneDrive.
Productivity Score officially launched less than a month later to little fanfare, but a closer look at what data Microsoft lets employers see about workers reveals a “privacy nightmare,” researchers and privacy advocates say. The workplace surveillance tool gives managers, for example, the ability to find an employee by name and see the number of hours they’ve spent in meetings on Microsoft Teams over the last 28 days. It also lets employers know the number of days a person was active on Microsoft Word, Outlook, Excel, PowerPoint, Skype and Teams in the last month and on what type of device. On a smaller scale, employers can even see the number of days a specific person sent an email containing an @mention or the number of times they had their camera on in meetings. There’s 73 pieces of granular data about worker behavior employers have access to, all associated with employees by name in a handy dashboard, according to Microsoft’s own documentation reviewed by Forbes.
“It’s horrendous,” said J.S. Nelson, an associate professor of law at Villanova University who studies workplace surveillance. “Why are they monitoring people this way and what is that telling people about the relationship they should have with their employers in the workplace? What message are you sending?”
Microsoft denies Productivity Score amounts to workplace surveillance, which is on the rise during the pandemic “Let me be clear: Productivity Score is not a work monitoring tool. Productivity Score is about discovering new ways of working, providing your people with great collaboration and technology experiences,” Microsoft 365 Corporate Vice President Jared Spataro said in an October 29 blog post officially announcing the feature.
Productivity Score isn’t on by default, but when companies enable it, the program automatically shows data on individual employees. Employers can anonymize user data or opt out of using “people” data at all, but managers have to manually change those settings.
“We make all of these choices available to customers and we’re super clear on how customers can use them or not use them,” said Microsoft 365 Product Marketing Director Melissa Grant in an interview with Forbes.
Grant added that Productivity Score, which is available to any company with a Microsoft 365 or an Office365 Vietnam business subscription, aggregates user-level data for a period of 28 days, so managers can’t drill down and find out what programs an employee was or wasn’t using on a specific day or time. After 28 days, all user-level data is deleted from the dashboard, and broader anonymized organization-level data is retained for 180 days.
Though managers can see data on individual employees, employees aren’t assigned individual Productivity Scores. Instead, the metric refers to a company-wide score out of 800 calculated by adding “people experience” points and “technology experience” points. People experience measures how often workers are using certain Microsoft 365 products while technology experience evaluates device startup performance, app health and network connectivity.
Grant said the tech giant decided to include data on individual employees by default because it can help diagnose specific technical problems or identify people having trouble with Microsoft applications. An employer, for example, could see that a particular employee is attaching files to emails rather than sending a link via OneDrive. If an employer wants the office using more cloud services, the manager could then send the employee a tutorial on sending shared files. In a demo video for the feature, Spataro said data on specific employees lets companies identify “early adopters and potential advocates” for new “digital transformation” strategies.
Privacy advocates don’t buy it. Allowing employers access to data on individual employees is invasive, they say, and creates an environment where workers are constantly on edge and fear being singled out. Microsoft also doesn’t notify employees about what behaviors are being monitored, leaving that decision up to companies that use the service. If the goal is to find out how workers are using technology, the more prudent solution would be to ask them, instead of sweeping up broad swaths of arbitrary data that don’t actually measure productivity, worker output or quality of work, Nelson, the Villanova professor, said.
“Having the numbers on something doesn’t mean you have any idea what’s going on with your employees,” she said, adding that employees could just open a bunch of Word documents or find other ways to boost their numbers.
Microsoft is framing Productivity Score as a way to drive “digital transformation,” but there’s nothing stopping employers from using individual-level data in evaluation or promotion decisions or as a pretext to fire or discipline employees. Bennett Cyphers, a staff technologist at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said it’s easy to imagine Productivity Score data being used to “exacerbate toxic work environments” as well as power imbalances between workers and managers. Research, too, has shown that employee surveillance can result in an erosion of trust, decreased problem solving performance and lower job satisfaction.
“This whole thing just looks like Microsoft trying to upsell products and make you become completely dependent on the entire suite,” he said.
With Productivity Score, Microsoft is joining a lucrative industry of startups selling worker tracking software. According to Market Research Future, the workplace monitoring industry is projected to grow to a $3.84 billion market by 2023, aided in part by skyrocketing use on remote workers during the pandemic. Companies, feeling the need to ensure productivity doesn’t drop off during work from home, are turning to companies like ActivTrak, Hubstaff and InterGuard, which all take screenshots of worker computers and catalogue how long employees use certain programs. More invasive software companies, such as Teramind, let employers watch in real time what workers are doing on their screens.
“The world is changing.” Workers know they are being watched, so it does not violate privacy, Hubstaff co-founder Dave Nevogt told the New York Times in May.
Microsoft isn’t taking screenshots or recording video, but its adoption of individual employee monitoring is significant. Microsoft 365 is the most popular workplace productivity software in the U.S., according to a 2020 Otka survey, with more than 650,000 companies as customers that now have access to the feature.
“I’m afraid that when Microsoft eases people into these employee monitoring dashboards, employees are getting used to living with this level of surveillance, and managers are going to get used to having a nice data feed about their employees and it’ll be a boon for the industry,” Cyphers said.
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Here are some of the data points employers can see about individual workers:
- Days sent email: Number of days the user sent an email in the last 28 days.
- Days used Teams chat: Number of days the user sent a chat message on Microsoft Teams in the last 28 days.
- Days in Outlook (desktop): Number of days the person was active on Outlook in the desktop platform.
- Days in Outlook (web): Number of days the person was active on Outlook in the web platform.
- Days in Outlook (mobile): Number of days the person was active on Outlook in the mobile platform.
- Days read content: Number of days the user has accessed content (files of type Microsoft Word/Excel/PowerPoint/OneNote or PDF) on OneDrive or SharePoint in the last 28 days..
- Days created content: Number of days the user has created, modified, or uploaded content (files of type Microsoft Word/Excel/PowerPoint/OneNote or PDF) on OneDrive or SharePoint Intranet in the last 28 days.
- OneDrive: Boolean value indicating if the person had access to OneDrive for at least 1 of the last 28 days.
- SharePoint: Boolean value indicating if the person had access to SharePoint for at least 1 of the last 28 days.
- Meetings attended: Number of online Microsoft Teams meetings in the last 28 days
- Meetings with screen sharing attended: Number of online Microsoft Teams meetings that had screen sharing in the last 28 days
- Meetings with video attended: Number of online Microsoft Teams meetings that had video in the last 28 days
- Hours of meetings: Number of hours spent in online Microsoft Teams meetings attended in the last 28 days