Overcoming the Barriers Around Employee Data

Unlock work data's complexities and unlock your company's future.

Future of Work

The office of tomorrow won't be built on gut feelings. The remote revolution has buried the myth of the superhuman executive who can sense the state of the company just by walking the office floor. Employee data has never been more important to the future of work.

Fortunately, collecting employee data has also never been easier. The tools your company uses to manage remote communication and workflow can be a goldmine of employee information. The right employee data can tell you everything from which teams might have skill gaps to which employees are at risk of burnout.

It's not just the tech, either. Studies show that remote work has positive effects on reducing the effects of bias against historically marginalized types of employee.

For instance, a Slack survey found that black knowledge workers feel double the sense of belonging working from home than they did at the office. The authors attribute this to reduced pressure to fit in with their co-workers and the arbitrary standards of a majority-white workplace. In short, black workers say remote work means they're judged more for their work and less for who they are.

Employee data management risks and rewards

But to paraphrase another superhuman, with great data comes great responsibility. The rich new landscape of employee data collection requires thoughtful navigation. Here are some barriers that managers and HR professionals might encounter around employee data.

You can't act on data that you don't collect

The first and most obvious barrier, of course, is when crucial employee data isn't collected in the first place.

Now's the time to review your tech stack and assess the data collected from it. Is it telling you what you need to know? Are there questions that aren't being answered? Once you nail down the basics of employee data collection, you can move on to the more powerful stuff...

Silos are for grain, not employee data

The real transformational insights come when multiple employee data sources are integrated. This cross-referencing can identify patterns that yield much more than the sum of its parts.

An employee database detective story

Let's look at a hypothetical example. Say your employee surveys show a negative downturn in satisfaction on a specific team. Your work management tool reveals that this team has had more early meetings, between 7 and 9 AM. And according to the demographic information in your employee database, this team has a disproportionately high number of members in their late 30s.

On their own, each of those pieces of information doesn't say much. But together, they point to the possibility that many team members likely have young children, with family responsibilities during those hectic early morning hours. Rethinking those 7 AM meetings could yield a boost in employee engagement and higher productivity.

Unfortunately, employee data is typically scattered among separate teams, stored in disconnected systems. Integrating, aggregating, and analyzing this data on a single platform is an essential step toward a truly data-driven digital transformation.


The uncharted territory of remote work privacy

Most of us think about data privacy as a customer issue. It makes sense. Most of the intrusive uses of our data target us as customers, not employees.

The high-profile news stories about data breaches are usually about customer information, not employment details. And no employer stores the hundreds of millions of records that, say, Amazon and other businesses collect from their customers, not to mention all those credit card numbers.

But how you manage employee data collection, security, and privacy are serious considerations. Your employee database contains the most sensitive personal details, from Social Security numbers and health information to sales numbers and attendance records.

Take handling employee data as seriously as your employees do

But it's not just about employee records and basic identifying information. Workplace performance data can be sensitive, too. Researchers from the European Commission to Gartner reach the same conclusion: intrusive employee monitoring contributes to increased stress and burnout, and makes employees quit at higher rates.

So it's vital that, above all, you're clear with employees on the specifics of collecting employee data. What information are you collecting? What will it be used for? Where will it be kept, and who has access to it?

It's not enough just to ensure compliance with the privacy provisions in your staff's employment agreements. If you want committed employees and high-performing teams, you have to engage with their valid concerns about how you handle employee data.

That sometimes means deciding what's more important: driving organizational transformation, or disciplining individual employees. In one case, nurses at a Florida hospital began wearing badges embedded with sensors to track their movements during their shifts. After managemnt assured nurses it would not be used punitively, this concrete, accurate data collection drove higher efficiency and effectiveness.

Of course, sometimes companies need to collect work performance data to help specific employees improve. Just understand that if you incentivize workers to optimize the data or suffer poor performance reviews, employee behavior will respond accordingly. And that distorted data won't yield the real-world performance insights that you need.

Can your employees trust management to hear the truth?

HR teams everywhere use pulse surveys as a key data source for employee engagement. But the spectre of "garbage in, garbage out" is increasingly casting its shadow. Recent studies have found that only 29% of employees trust their organizations with feedback information, and only 47% are fully honest in such surveys.

Far too many employees feel like these surveys are futile at best, whitewashing at worst. They've seen poor follow-up from surveys in the past. They've sensed that unflattering results have been ignored. And they wonder if they're really free to say what they think without being punished for it. Wouldn't you?

Human Resources can rebuild that trust — if...

With work culture as their specific responsibility, Human Resources is the natural team to fix this. They're already among the most trusted units of the company, with 83% of employees in one survey saying they trust their HR manager or department.

HR should ensure that the purposes of surveys are clearly spelled out, that the results are shared openly and honestly, and that the insights are acted upon in concrete ways. Sounds simple, right?

Unfortunately not always. HR often doesn't have decisive influence over these decisions, which can require commitments of time, resources, and talent. That lack of power erodes the trust referred to a couple of paragraphs ago: two-thirds of workers in the same survey said they'd neglected to make a report to HR because they didn't think anything would change because of it.

It's certainly a choice to limit the HR department to running the hiring process, not terribly relevant after new hires find their desks. But if you want credible employee data and a positive work environment, HR's job description is going to need a little more muscle.

Data can be biased, too

Finally, there's the fact that like all data, employee data is only as good as the humans behind the employee data collection. At best, any distortions can be trivial. At worst, that means data can lend a veneer of empirical truth that hides the unconscious biases of its creators.

This can be a challenging to accept. They're only numbers! Numbers can't be racist or sexist or homophobic, right? Seems simple. But there's a lot more to it than that.

Unconscious bias by the numbers

Phil Harvey, Senior Cloud Solution Architect for Data & AI at Microsoft, told the WNDYR podcast about a an AI model built to analyze loan risk based on data from 20 years of loan applications. "The trouble is, those loan applications were reviewed and filled in by people," Harvey says, "and within that 20 year period, you have a changing sort of socio-ethical landscape of how people view different groups in society. So if you use that data, you can accidentally bake into the AI model all of the human bias that was part of that process in the past."

The point isn't to throw up your hands and say all humans are flawed so all HR metrics must be, too. It's to be mindful of the potential for seemingly impartial employee data to reflect biases.

Collect employee data with purpose

The transformative possibilities for thoughtful use of employee data are worth overcoming every one of these barriers. If you need help with the future of work at your company, the experts at WNDYR have driven digital transformations for organizations with hundreds of thousands of employees. Contact us to get your tomorrow started today.

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