Corporate surveillance is on the rise. The aim? To unearth employees’ darkest secrets, manipulate personal data to control their every move and ultimately break their spirits.
Of course, I’m being facetious — gathering accurate data is an important step towards boosting productivity and professional development — but there’s a serious point here, because these are precisely the kind of fears that emerge when it comes to AI and data sharing in the workplace. The problem for reticent employees is that data-driven AI is rapidly transitioning from possibility to probability and then to inevitability.
According to a Gartner survey, 22 per cent of organisations across industries are already using employee-movement data, while 17 per cent are monitoring computer usage, and 16 per cent are using data from Microsoft Outlook or calendars. This all points to one thing: like it or not, you need to start getting over your privacy paranoia.
It’s funny really; in this age of social media, you rarely think twice about posting photos of your children’s birthday parties, romantic dinners or late-night revelries. Nor do you hesitate in sharing details of your whereabouts at any given point in time, down to the view from the window and the contents of your lunch plate.
Even before social media, many of us happily surrendered our full names, addresses and contact numbers to the telephone directory for consumption by a nation of strangers. Yet, the very idea of sharing useful data at work instils a sense of dread.
In some ways, the fear is understandable. After all, privacy and the urge to protect it are human instincts, and it’s easy to see why some technologies are setting alarm bells ringing. In 2017, Walmart patented a system that tracks employee metrics by capturing sounds, from rustling shopping bags to beeping scanners and the murmur of voices in the checkout line. Amazon recently received a patent for a bracelet that can detect the location of warehouse staff and monitor their interactions with inventory bins.
According to a CNBC article, the e-commerce giant says the technology has not been implemented. But it could be.
Depending on your view, these data-hungry innovations are either ingenuous or horrifying. But what should be universally concerning is the way that data is handled. According to a survey by Accenture, 62 per cent of executives said their companies were using new technologies to collect data on their people, yet less than a third were confident that they were using the data responsibly.
Clearly then, there is an onus on companies to do better when it comes to managing the data they collect if they are to gain the trust of their people. However, you also need to start changing the way you think about data privacy, and that begins with an understanding that those with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear — and everything to gain.
Rather than over-stepping the mark and invading privacy, data-driven AI can work in employees’ favour: increasing fairness, removing bias, rewarding people based on merit and even motivating workers to further their professional development. The only people with something to worry about are the lazy, underperforming employees who lurk in the shadows, to the annoyance of their colleagues.
Fortunately, there are already signs to suggest that attitudes are changing. As I mentioned last week, employees appear to be in favour of sharing their data for company use provided it is collected responsibly and in ways that benefit them — and there is a generational shift too. As a recent “Forbes” article pointed out, millennials are more trusting when it comes to sharing data, due to a combination of awareness and apathy.
Having been born and raised in a digital world, they simply don’t see what all the fuss is about. The millennial willingness to share data stems from understanding, and that’s where we all need to begin.
Your company is not out to get you. It craves your data to become more productive, and AI or no AI, that relies on building people up, not knocking them down.
Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered Leadership and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.