Collaboration analytics: Yes, you can track employees. Should you?

Analytics tools provided by Microsoft, Slack, and other collaboration app vendors offer insights into communication patterns and other employee work habits. But companies should be wary of reading too much into the data — or abusing workers’ trust.

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From email to video meetings and team chat, collaboration applications have become vital tools to connect workers. And by giving companies the tools to track employee use of these apps, software vendors can provide insights into working patterns and help organizations better understand how they operate.

The ability to view analytics data in collaboration and productivity software is not new; such products have long provided admins with a snapshot of app utilization. Typically aimed at gauging user uptake and tracking deployment progress, these metrics were otherwise limited in their wider business use.

Recently, however, software vendors have begun to add more sophisticated analytics that shine a light on broader organizational working patterns and trends.

“The big shift happening now is from adoption analytics to thinking about employee experience more broadly,” said Angela Ashenden, a principal analyst at CCS Insight. “You start to build organizational and HR metrics into the analytics framework; it goes beyond just adoption to being much more about business enablement.”

Vendors point to numerous benefits, including the ability to identify communication bottlenecks between departments, boost workforce productivity, and improve employee well-being. At the same, the use of employee analytics has proved controversial, with concerns about employee monitoring pushing software vendors to try and strike a balance between serving businesses data insights and protecting individuals’ privacy.

Though some industry watchers question the usefulness of employee collaboration metrics, noting limitations related to tracking a single vendor’s products or applying the same measures across different teams, the allure of analytics tools is strong. That’s especially true because they’re typically included with the vendors’ business and enterprise plans.

Here’s what you need to know about what the analytics provided with collaboration and productivity apps can effectively measure, their limitations, and what to watch out for when using them.

What can businesses learn from collaboration app analytics?

Analytics within collaboration and productivity applications vary in scope. There are two broad categories emerging: analytics aimed at personal productivity that provide an individual user with insights into their own behavior, such as hours spent in meetings, focus time, and who they interact with; and higher-level analytics aimed at managers and business leaders to track a variety of working patterns.

“There's a spin-off now from the analytics that were mainly targeted at admins, and in two directions: individual productivity and then workforce productivity,” said Raul Castanon, a senior analyst at 451 Research, a part of S&P Global Market Intelligence. “The evolution spread is over the past two years, and it's only now that we're seeing a more formal product offering.”

While individual workers can view personal analytics related to their use of a specific set of apps, analytics data shown at the team or organization level is typically anonymized and provides insights into way that teams or divisions are interacting.

Microsoft has several analytics capabilities available to customers of the Microsoft 365 application suite, which features office applications such as Word and Excel, as well as collaboration tools including Teams and SharePoint. In addition to its MyAnalytics personal productivity analytics for individual employees, Microsoft provides Workplace Analytics, aimed at helping business leaders understand trends within their workforce at a group or department level using anonymized and de-aggregated data.

Launched in 2017, Workplace Analytics provides “unprecedented behavioral insights” that can be used to boost productivity, as well as increase employee well-being and counter the risk of burnout, according to Microsoft.

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Microsoft Workplace Analytics provides a snapshot of employee collaboration habits, as well as the ability to benchmark groups of employees and identify best practices. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Metrics available within Workplace Analytics range from Teams call hours and number of instant messages sent to the amount of on-on-one time managers spend with direct reports and the number of cross-departmental connections that team members have (see full list of metrics). A recently launched “manager insights” dashboard allows managers to track de-identified metrics in relation their own team, as well as the ability to set “plans” that appear in a worker’s individual MyAnalytics dashboard, in order to encourage more focus time, for example, or reduce the number of meetings that occur outside business hours.

Both MyAnalytics and Workplace Analytics are being folded into Viva Insights, the analytics component of Microsoft’s recently announced Viva employee experience platform for Teams. Microsoft also plans to integrate its analytics with employee feedback platform Glint to highlight potential links between collaboration patterns and employee satisfaction.

Another analytics tool included in Microsoft 365 is Productivity Score, which provides a range of “scores” for organizations in categories such as communication, teamwork, and mobility. For example, a “content collaboration” score is based on how often staff create content, read content, or collaborate with others using Microsoft 365 tools. However, Microsoft says that the Productivity Score is intended for use by IT admins rather than business leaders or managers.

“We believe that data-driven insights can help people, teams, and organizations in a variety of ways — from troubleshooting boot times to fostering well-being,” said a Microsoft spokesperson. “We’re opposed to workforce surveillance, however.”

In Google’s Workspace productivity and collaboration app suite, individual users have access to Time Insights personal productivity analytics. And organizational analytics are available in Google’s Work Insights tool, which displays “executive-level insights” related to apps such as Gmail, Docs, and Meet.

The Work Insights metrics, made generally available in 2019, include Adoption insights, which shows a percentage breakdown of daily active users by app; Activity, which reveals how users split their time in Workspace, with the percentage of time spent in Gmail, Docs, Sheets, and Slides; and Collaboration, which highlights collaboration trends by type, such as the number of files shared, co-edited, and co-read. 

“Work Insights show customers how Google Workspace impacts their business,” a Google spokesperson said. The metrics focus on product adoption analytics, as well as work patterns and team-to-team collaboration “so that Workspace customers can accelerate their digital transformation,” the spokesperson said.

Work Insights can be accessed by Google Workspace admins, as well as “delegated admin users” authorized by an existing admin, such as managers, executives, and HR staff. Google also provides separate Admin console reports that are specifically aimed at IT roles and, unlike Work Insights, show data relating to individuals.

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Google’s Work Insights can be used to highlight collaboration between various team in an organization, helping identify patterns such as meetings and co-creation of documents. (Click image to enlarge it.)

Most recently, Cisco in March unveiled People Insights analytics for its online meeting and collaboration platform Webex, with three sets of metrics geared toward individuals, teams, and organizational views made accessible to all employees. Components of the new analytics platform will be rolled out to customers gradually starting in a few months.

The personal analytics data will be viewable only by individuals, while the de-identified team and organizational analytics will also be viewable by managers and business leaders. The Team Insights feature, which tracks team activity within Webex, is aimed at both managers and team members.

The organizational-level analytics will provide Webex customers with “a bird’s-eye view on collaboration trends and patterns to help spot silos and identify teams that may benefit from additional support or an increased focus on inclusivity,” a Cisco spokesperson said. The tool will help customers as they shift to new ways of working, the spokesperson said.

Slack provides various metrics aimed at providing customers with transparency into the way the chat-based collaboration app is used within their organization, the company said. The analytics within Slack focus largely on application utilization, rather than patterns of communication between teams, for example. In this sense the analytics are less wide-ranging than the business-focused tools offered by application suite vendors.

The Slack analytics dashboard shows usage data at a company and individual level, with metrics ranging from total active users to number of messages sent in public and private channels, including the number of messages sent in Slack by each individual user (see full list). All Slack users are able by default to access these stats.

Slack has also added message activity analytics that can help internal communications teams track the reach of company-wide messages sent in the platform, such as the number of views and reactions.

“We believe that part of ensuring you’re getting the most out of Slack is making sure you understand the overall impact and reach of your activity so you can optimize towards stronger engagement,” a spokesperson said. “The analytics capabilities available now are just the first steps in helping organization leaders understand the impact of Slack to their organization.”

What do collaboration analytics mean for employee privacy?

As employers gain new ways to track workforce behavior, concerns have been raised around the potential impact on employee privacy. A CCS Insight employee survey report from January indicated that nearly half of workers (46%) in the US and Europe are uncomfortable with the prospect of an employer monitoring their productivity via digital tools when working from home.

It’s a topic that has come to the fore during the pandemic, as businesses have shifted to remote work, disconnecting workers from managers in the office. At the extreme end of this has been a reported increase in interest around controversial “bossware” apps that allow managers to track employee activity at a granular level, drawing criticism from workers’ rights groups and highlighting sensitivities around digital productivity monitoring.

[ Related: When work-from-home means the boss is watching ]

The analytics available within collaboration and productivity apps are much less intrusive, with data typically de-identified to prevent misuse by those inclined to micromanagement. Software vendors are keenly aware of potential for reputational damage if they get the balance between surfacing business insights and protecting employee privacy wrong in their products.

After Microsoft rolled out its Productivity Score analytics last fall, for example, the company was criticized for providing application data that highlighted metrics relating to individuals. The company responded by making changes to the tool to ensure that data is anonymized at the individual level.

All software vendors are under pressure to ensure that surfacing workforce data doesn’t infringe on worker privacy, said Ashenden, and though there may be mistakes, maintaining trust is a top priority. “Their entire business is dependent on trust at all levels: trusted by IT, trusted by end users, and trusted by business decision makers. They have to keep the equilibrium across all of them, so they're really cautious about it.”

A Microsoft spokesperson said: “At Microsoft, we believe that data-driven insights are crucial to empowering people and organizations to achieve more. We also believe that privacy is a human right, and we’re deeply committed to the privacy of every person who uses our products...

"We take a number of steps in our tools — in some cases enforcing role-based access and audit logs, in some cases only reporting aggregated data — that help organizations prevent misuse or accidental disclosure.”

Google has also taken steps to prevent its Work Insights metrics from being used as a monitoring tool by aggregating analytics to the team level. “Data surfaced in Work Insights is only available at an aggregated level; they do not include the ability to drill down and see any individual’s activities,” a spokesperson said. “In order to protect the privacy of individual enterprise users, team reports and organisational insights are only available for teams of 10 people or more.” 

Cisco said that its analytics tool is aimed at “enabling teams and individuals to use data to see how they are spending time and ensuring they have the relationships they need to be successful” and is not intended to be a measurement of productivity or performance.

To this end, only aggregated data will be available to teams, including the team’s manager. “This is not a tool for managers, but rather a tool for ALL individual employees,” a spokesperson said. “Neither managers nor co-workers will be able to see data about any individual, although individuals will be able to see their own data. Managers will only be able to see aggregated high-level trend data.”

Slack allows all users to view a small set of analytics relating to named individual users, including the ability to rank colleagues by the number of messages sent and days active, though it suggests on its help center website that such metrics should not be used to evaluate an individual’s performance. The company said that the scope of analytics offered restricts any potential for micro-management or productivity monitoring.

“Given these metrics don't provide insight into who individuals are communicating with, if they were active or how active they were on a specific date (only the last 30 days aggregate), we feel strongly that the opportunity for misuse is mitigated,” a spokesperson said.

Any businesses using analytics that track employees’ use of productivity and collaboration tools should be aware of the potential impact on trust, said Ashenden. A failure here could undo efforts to improve company culture and job satisfaction. “All that goes out the window from just one misstep … you don't want to be associated with trust-breaking activities,” she said.

Can businesses rely on collaboration analytics?

Analytics within collaboration and productivity applications can provide a variety of insights to businesses. It’s possible, for instance, to use the data to benchmark teams to detect and replicate the collaboration habits of high-performing teams. Data could show, for instance, that a successful sales team has high levels of communication — not just externally with clients, but also internally with colleagues across different departments.

“If you have some real business challenges, like organizationally you're too siloed and people aren't sharing information effectively across the business, or you’ve got blockers somewhere, then you could use the tool to evidence the parts of the business where that's the case and where there is cross-organizational collaboration,” said Ashenden.

collab analytics microsoft manager insights Microsoft

With Microsoft’s manager insights dashboard, team leaders can identify areas of improvement and compare metrics such as time spent in email with other groups. (Click image to enlarge it.)

However, there are limitations to what can be derived from the data, and questions around the degree to which the analytics can be used to gauge productivity. What works for one team might not work for another, and there’s a danger of overinterpreting collaboration stats.

“There is a risk in trying to correlate the output of the tools to KPIs,” said Castanon. “I don't think you can say, for example, that if a team or group of individuals spend many more hours in meetings, or less on email, then that means they are doing their work better than other teams. “Aggregating all of that is not really going to give you a team productivity indicator.”

The range of accessible data is another issue. When analytics are limited to a product from a single vendor, it can be difficult to provide a broad picture of working patterns. Many businesses rely on productivity and collaboration tools from several vendors, which can mean that analytics that track working patterns for a single app or platform reveal only part of the picture.

“It does raise the issue of whether you need the functionality to be standalone or part of another system,” said Castanon.

To that end, Microsoft’s Viva Insights will incorporate data from some third-party applications, including videoconferencing apps like Zoom and HR platforms like Workday.

For businesses that seek a comprehensive view of workforce data across their operations, the analytics available within collaboration and productivity tools may just be a starting point. Data from these tools can also be integrated with other sources of business information, such as CRM data, for instance. There’s also growing demand for performance and employee engagement analytics, part of the wider drive to quantify the employee experience within organizations.  

Nevertheless, as the tools that employees interact with throughout their day, analytics from collaboration and productivity applications are likely to play a bigger part in helping businesses understand their workforce going forward.

“Every vendor has their own way of showing how their solution helps improve the employee experience,” said Ashenden. “I think that will be a key focus over the next couple of years.”

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

 
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