A few weeks ago Microsoft announced a new feature of their Workplace Analytics platform called the Microsoft Productivity Score. It allows managers (or certain people in the organization) to analyze a wide range of employee data at the individual level. This allows employers to see how many emails their employees send, how often they contribute to OneDrive files, and many other metrics based on how they use Microsoft 365 services like Outlook, Teams, SharePoint, etc. This option can be turned off, but it is on by default. This sparked a lot of pushback, like here, that argues Productivity Score has become a “full-blown workplace surveillance tool” and that these metrics will be used in problematic ways.

An analysis by Forbes found that Productivity Score included 73 pieces of granular data about worker behavior, all of which could be associated with employees by name (although the data is aggregated across a 28-day period). And the blowback was covered in multiple tech outlets, including ZDNet and Business Insider.

Microsoft responded to the negative press with a quick update to turn off the features that call out employees by name, and clarify that the tool is “designed to help IT administrators measure and manage adoption so their people can get the most out of Microsoft 365.” You can read their full explanation here.

At Cultivate we also use new technology, like AI, to analyze digital workplace communication, similar to Microsoft Workplace Analytics. However, we are very different in product and mission. For example:

  • we focus on coaching and development to help build stronger workplace relationships, not on productivity and monitoring to help people optimize their technology usage
  • we analyze and derive value from the content of messages, not just the metadata

Still, we must answer customers’ inquiries about how Cultivate is alike or dislike Microsoft Workplace Analytics since, like it or not, Microsoft is setting the perceptions of how technology is being used to analyze workplace emails.

Our product team is very conscious of the fine line between empowering employees and monitoring them. While we believe in the power of big data to help people become better leaders, we also understand how easily those same techniques can invade employee’s privacy or create unfair metrics to hold them to. And while I am sure the folks at Microsoft believe in that too, the difference is in our product architecture.

Bottom-Up vs. Top-Down

Microsoft and all of the “digital exhaust” platforms that have come to popularity over the past few years are all built on the same premise and product architecture: “Top-Down”. They are all centralized products that have the ability to be turned-on by administrators of the company, to gather types of data on employees and use that data to make decisions for the benefit of the business. Microsoft doesn’t ask each individual user if they are ok with using their data from Productivity Score, even anonymized, for analysis. And “opt-out” doesn’t count here, as there is a power imbalance between employer and employee, and also generally most users don’t know how to access many opt-out features of products.

By the way, this is how almost all HR platforms work. Your performance review platform is not opt-in. You don’t get to decide to participate in OKRs or not. Everyone has to take the engagement survey for it to matter. ONA is performed at a high-level without employee participation. These are tools and platforms that are purchased and deployed “Top-Down”. They assume they can gather all their data in one big chunk, at the same time, from everybody, and are designed accordingly.

“Opt-in” platforms in HR have traditionally been relegated to the fringes, although that is changing post-COVID. These platforms tend to cover things like wellbeing and coaching that are not core to HR, but are nice to have in a benefits package.

I’m not surprised that these “Top-Down” products begin to infringe on monitoring users (whether by design or mistake) as smart and savvy engineers make updates to them. Why? Because the product was designed to do it. The only safeguard to protect employee’s privacy is either the moral compass of tech companies wanting to “use data for good,” or the Twitter feeds of concerned users that force them to change their features through bad publicity.

So what is different about Cultivate? From day one, we made a decision to build our platform as a “Bottom-Up” platform. What does that mean? Bottom-Up refers to both:

  1. The product architecture – requiring individuals to opt-in
  2. The value prop – being focused on the individual first and the overall company second

Cultivate is an individualized AI-based coach that uses data from a user’s own chats, emails and calendars to help them become better leaders and teammates. This data gives us the ability to passively understand information about digital relationships and give users feedback on how they can improve, and then the company the ability to understand new insights on digital culture. But users must “opt-in” to turn Cultivate on. It is architected with an individual OAuth token. There is no way we can centrally access any data from a user unless they opt-in. Even anonymized, high-level data can only be useful when enough users opt-in to make it significant.

The “Bottom-Up” philosophy makes the employee an equal stakeholder in the platform. FYI, investors didn’t like this when we founded Cultivate three years ago. They told us it is much easier to make one sale, to somebody like the CIO or VP of People Analytics, than to have a product that relies on providing value to every single user, such that they opt-in. But that is the trade. The value of coaching and empowerment lies in personalizing feedback from the content of your messages (i.e., how you treat people), and to access that content (morally, ethically and legally), people need to opt-in!

Guided by Employee Empowerment

In a presentation at Cultivate’s Employee Empowerment Summit, Ali Shah, Head of Technology Policy at the UK Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) said that focusing on employee empowerment is a good guideline to help companies stay on the right side of privacy regulations. In Ali’s words, ”things go wrong when the focus on the employee is not there.”

We’ve taken Ali’s advice to heart – the Cultivate platform was built from Day 1 as an empowerment tool, not a monitoring tool. We believe, and data shows, that monitoring employees does not increase their performance over the long term. We advocate for data analysis solutions that empower the individual AND the organization (but not at the individual’s expense). We believe that a firm focus on employee empowerment will help organizations develop data analysis products and programs that can benefit their workforces without monitoring them. That’s how we built Cultivate and we hope others will take the same approach.

As companies and employees seek more personalized ways to get feedback and development (especially while remote), this blurred line between empowerment and surveillance will continue to be crossed. Instead of more complex “policies” around privacy, the simplest way to avoid workplace surveillance, while building products that process private data, is to make them opt-in for the user. In that type of system architecture, the product needs to benefit the user enough that they’ll want to use it. This isn’t a cure-all, but I think it guides product development in a much better direction for employees. In summary – Build Bottom-Up.

Joe Freed, CEO

Joe Freed, CEO

As Co-founder and CEO of Cultivate, Joe is focused on building leadership development and future-of-work technology for the digital workforce. In addition to leading Cultivate, Joe enjoys writing about workplace trends, teaching about startups and product management at UC Berkeley Extension, and occasionally running a marathon.