More companies ‘turning to data’ to manage worker productivity

The big story in the tech world earlier this week was the lengthy expose of web giant Amazon published by the New York Times, which painted a picture of a fiercely results-driven organisation where employees are pushed to work long hours and poorly-performing staff are frequently cut.

Much of this culture, which was described as "bruising" and "Darwinian" by the current and former employees the publication spoke to, was said to revolve around the way Amazon uses data analytics to keep a close eye of their workers' productivity. This ranges from tracking their results to encouraging workers to fill in reports on their colleagues' performance and attitude.

While the revelations caused an outcry on social media, and led to chief executive Jeff Bezos sending a memo to staff refuting some of the claims, Amazon is far from the only company that is turning to data in order to gain better insight into how its staff are performing.

"Every company is somewhere in process toward using data to get a better handle on who their top performers are and to understand where people stand," John Challenger, chief executive of outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray and Christmas, told the Associated Press (AP).

Both large and small businesses are moving away from tools such as annual performance reviews towards more data-driven processes that involve more frequent feedback, check-ins and other performance metrics.

Tech companies are among those leading the way with this. The AP noted that Google, for instance, uses data to figure out how to put together optimal-sized teams for projects and figure out what makes effective leaders.

There are even startups that specialise in this type of analytics, such as Glint, a California-based firm whose clients include music streaming site Pandora and marketing automation company Marketo.

It works by sending out short surveys, or 'Pulses', on a regular basis that ask staff how they feel about their job. This data is then collated and analysed to let executives see how the health of their employees and company is faring in real time, in much the same way they might be able to check sales results or marketing impressions.

For example, one of Glint's clients was able to use the data obtained from the Pulses to spot that women in one department were ranking their work/life balance substantially lower than expected. The company identified the cause of this to be a staffing shortage in that area.

"What they were able to do was to go in and increase the staffing before they had significant attrition," Glint chief executive Jim Barnett said. "The beauty of systems like this is you're able to link actions to outcomes."

However, businesses must be wary of relying too heavily on data to make decisions about their human resources. For instance, they need to be careful they do not seem 'Big Brotherish' by looking too closely into their employees' lives, while they must also avoid the perception that a data-oriented approach will lead to a cold-hearted workplace.

David Lewis, chief executive of HR outsourcing and consulting firm Operations Inc, told the AP: "It's easy to get so hung up on statistics that you miss the value of what that individual brings to the table in terms of personality, connectivity and those intangible pieces."