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Self-Monitoring Is The Next Big Thing In Workplace Surveillance

Blue-collar workers are used to being surveilled at work, but a new kind of self-tracking is headed for your desk job, too. Here's what I learned watching myself work for a week.

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"What about Wikipedia?" My manager is peering over my shoulder as I scroll down a list of websites I regularly visit, attempting to place each into one of two categories.

"Work," she says decisively.

"What about Amazon?"

"Private."

"OK, what about Seamless?"

"Private."

"What?! It was for lunch at work!" I protest.

"Sorry," she says, shaking her head. "I run a tight ship."

About a week earlier, I had decided to surveil myself at work using Sapience Buddy, an employee-monitoring software system now available to the masses for the first time as a workplace productivity tracker. Sapience runs in the background on any Windows computer, constantly collecting, aggregating, and analyzing data on metrics including the applications a user runs, the websites she visits, and how much time she spends online. (Plans are in the works to bring it to Mac, but the company hasn't announced a timeline.)

For anyone who's looked at the clock at 3 p.m. and realized they've done nothing all day — which is to say, nearly everyone with a desk job in 2015 — the appeal is obvious, at least at first blush: Sapience allows you and your manager to see, in a colorful, neatly organized readout, exactly where the time goes. At its core, it is yet another example of the sprawling, swiftly growing "quantified self" movement — in fact, Khiv Singh, associate vice president of sales for Sapience, is fond of calling it "Fitbit for work." The idea, he told BuzzFeed News, isn't to control how employees spend their time, but to make them more aware of it. According to Singh, just going through the motions of quantifying a day's labor can change how a worker thinks about work/life balance. "Everybody is busy," he said. "But are we busy with the right things?"

By promoting its consumer-facing app, Sapience is framing monitoring as an opt-in practice, something that employees benefit from. But Sapience isn't just another personal productivity app — it's a workplace surveillance tool, and it is primarily used to allow managers to check up, minute for minute, on what their employees are doing. Though, in most cases, individual employee data is not revealed to managers, the software is nonetheless designed as a tool to hold workers accountable.

And, there's this: Does it work? Can keeping track of how many minutes a day they spend not working during the workday really provide employees with greater peace of mind after hours? To figure out if the process of self-tracking could change how I conceive of my job — and in turn my productivity — I decided to try it for myself.

Even if I worked for a company that actually used Sapience to monitor workers, rather than one that pays to me to do it as a stunt, there's a good chance my manager would never find out exactly how I spend my time. Sapience's business software, Enterprise, offers three modes: self-improvement, which is private; anonymous, which shows managers team-level data; and transparent, in which bosses can see a detailed log of individual work activity. (They can't see data about websites and applications marked as private, however.)

Most of Sapience's clients — which currently number about 65, including Dell, Siemens, Xerox, and McKinsey — use one of the first two modes, according to Singh. While managers can, theoretically, look at individual logs, most choose to access the data as an aggregated report that they then use not to punish employees but to make systemwide tweaks. For example, Vinita Gera, a senior director for product development at BMC software, told BuzzFeed News that she monitors her team of engineers using Sapience in anonymous mode, mostly to set group goals for how much time is spent on core tasks.

But even if your manager can't see exactly which websites you visit, or how long you, personally, use each app, tracking systems like Sapience still provide a body of data for which an employee can be held, to whatever extent, responsible. Though, for Gera's engineers, there are no punitive measures tied to the app — at BMC, the human resources department doesn't have access to Sapience data — her team is nonetheless expected to shape their workflows and processes in accordance with the software. Given its inability to measure outputs, Sapience can't actually determine whether or not you're doing a good job. But it can set expectations for how you do your job.

Workplace monitoring is nothing new, especially in blue-collar professions such as logistics and delivery, where telematics technologies track employees' physical locations, and in the hospitality and retail sectors, where closed-circuit cameras are a fixture. In some office jobs, applications monitor keystrokes, email, attendance, and inactivity — sometimes unbeknownst to the employee. Earlier this month, a Baltimore city employee was fired after monitoring software proved that he spent more than half the time he was on the clock watching porn. More recently, a woman who worked as a sales representative in the field claimed she was fired for deleting an app that tracked her movements from her phone.

Singh insists that monitoring employees is far from what Sapience is all about. "We capture applications. We don't track anything more than that," he said. "We don't track keystrokes or screen scraping, because that's where privacy starts becoming blurred." In fact, employees being aware of and interacting with their Sapience data is essential to how it functions.

Carl Hoffmann is the president of the human resources consulting firm Human Capital Management and Performance and the lead author of Calculating Success, a management theory book on workforce analytics. He told BuzzFeed News that employee-monitoring software is quite common — in fact, there are dozens of these products on the market — but typically fails to offer analysis to the workers themselves.

"People don't mind being measured and don't mind being monitored," Hoffmann said. For some, especially those looking to claim responsibility for success, or for measures by which to prove their excellence, that's probably true. "They want to know how they can improve," he said.

In fact, Sapience is now doubling down on that impulse toward self-improvement. Previously the company's software has been necessarily constructed of two parts: Buddy, which provides the worker with feedback, and Server, which displays data for the manager. But Sapience is so confident that individual workers will enjoy tracking their productivity that it has uncoupled the two services, allowing individuals to download and use Sapience Buddy as a standalone product. There's a free version with limited features, or a deluxe version that, for now, costs just $24 a month.

By focusing on presenting data to the consumer, or the employee, as well as to management, Sapience offers something fundamentally different from both most workplace surveillance products and most personal productivity apps. With Sapience's software, self-tracking and employee monitoring are combined, providing a common, quantitative language for employer and employee to discuss progress. But what Sapience can't do is put workers and their bosses on even footing, which means how the data ends up being used will always ultimately be up to management.

Sapience is not sold with the intention of it being used as a stick — a way to track employees' Facebook time or porn habits and then fire them — but as a carrot: A self-improvement tool with cheerful bar charts and potential badges to be won.

That's a smart alignment for Sapience; the more their product appeals to workers, the more software they'll undoubtedly sell. But while for some workers the product is simply a gentle reminder that, at heart, diligence is a form of self-care, there are certain types of workers for whom the linkage of data and job performance is inevitable. Or, in Singh's words: "There are some companies where the effort of the human capital has a direct effect on revenue."

A manager who uses Sapience to prove that she's spending too much of her time — 78% too much, in the case of one client — in meetings, Sapience can be a delightful tool for self-guidance, a boss for the bossless. But for someone who works a job where the number of transactions directly translates into revenue — say, to use Singh's example, a person working in loan sales at Bank of America — the appeal of being watched by a program like Sapience is significantly diminished.

Broadly, according to Hoffman, there's a sense that, while it's acceptable to track the activities and movements of blue-collar and lower-paid workers, it's neither efficient nor appropriate to treat more highly skilled workers the same way. "I think the more educated you are, the more likely you are to think [employee-monitoring software] doesn't apply to you," Hoffman said. But programs like Sapience use trendy and innovative practices of self-quantification to occlude a much more pernicious tradition of paternalism in the workplace, one that white-collar and knowledge workers could soon find themselves facing with increasing regularity.

I am not exempt from this particular strain of arrogance. At first I thought the nature of a job like mine — a job with few concrete quotas and boundaries, a job where chat and Wikipedia really can legitimately count as work — meant the software was irrelevant to me. But I learned that there's really no job, even my own, that can't be broken down into a series of tasks.

To glean any information at all from Sapience, however inaccurate, meant first going one by one through the half-dozen applications and dozens of websites I regularly use and determining which actually counted as work. This is how I found myself hunched over a Microsoft Surface arguing about Seamless with my manager. At the end of every day for the workweek during which I used Sapience, I would go back and fill in the gaps in my calendar when I was on the phone, or in meetings, or traveling from one place to another, classifying those activities as "offline work." (Ironically, I began spending not-insignificant stretches of time in Sapience Buddy, better known in my activity spreadsheet as "non-project work.")

But in return for all that painstaking personal data entry, Sapience's Work Yoga tab would spit out a number of charts that told me how much time I'd spent on work versus private tasks, which applications I'd spent the most time in, and which activities — browsing, communication, documentation, sales — took up most of my day. If I stayed focused on a work task without bouncing around to multiple applications, that time was recorded as being "in the zone." I quickly found I liked being "in the zone."

Technically, of course, Sapience is incapable of capturing what I'm really up to, and has no metrics for determining whether or not the work I'm doing is any good. But just looking at the data in its colorful and various arrays made me ask myself questions like, What am I supposed to be doing here? and What, exactly, is my job? These questions, as one might expect, lead to a cascade of anxiety which, while unpleasant, can also be quite productive, in that they compel you to take your minutes and hours on this planet a bit more seriously.

No matter how autonomous you feel, or how abstract your job is, being surveilled by software like Sapience can teach you something about your habits. This fact is probably never more surprising than it is to managers, such as BMC's Vinita Gera. Though she's a senior manager at BMC, Gera also uses Sapience to track her own productivity. The idea was that she would share her findings with her team in hopes of making them more comfortable with the idea of being tracked. (Initial reactions to the implementation of Sapience were not warm. "I heard hallway discussions of people being really unhappy about it," Gera said.)

Early on, Gera set herself a goal to take fewer breaks. Her office has an open door policy, which she likes, but which breeds a raft of casual, less-than-productive conversations, she said. But what she found was that her desire to present "good" data to her team began to pervade her life in unexpected ways. If she took longer than five minutes to walk between two meetings, Sapience would register that time as a break; the same went for when her daughter played music on her work laptop at home. Though she easily could have, Gera decided not to micromanage these inaccuracies within the software, but they still irked her. "You get so addicted to the gamification," she said.

I, too, was emotionally impacted by Sapience. Regardless of how many stories I'd published, I felt better about myself when a big chunk of the day was coral pink for "Documentation" (how I categorized actual writing), and worse when a big chunk was light blue for "Browsing," even though that could just as easily represent important research as idly scrolling Twitter.

Sapience doesn't measure output, like how many stories I write. It can only measure input, like how many consecutive minutes I spend on Slack, the instant-messaging service BuzzFeed uses internally. But what it can't show, in its current iteration, is what I talked about on Slack, or whether there's a relationship between time spent goofing off and, say, the originality of my prose. Even if it can recreate my days, minute for minute, it can't tell if I'm being productive. It can't know if the emails I was writing were to editors or friends, or if the hour I spent in Word was simply writing and deleting the same bad lede over and over. Though relatively insignificant to me, this imprecision could be maddening to perfectionists — and to those whose are actually being watched.

Considering that I could have spent an entire day texting on my iPhone while allowing a WordPad document to sit open on my computer, for me, there was little value in the data gathered by Sapience alone. But the simple process of trying -- and maybe even failing -- to delineate what it is I'm paid to do was illuminating in its own right. Knowing I was being electronically tracked changed how I worked. I would type Amaz- or Pinter- or Fac- into the address bar and then think, Is this really a good use of my time? If I open this tab, can I still get out of here by six?

We are a society addicted to the possibilities of what data can tell us, and not all of us are shy. At Intuit, for example, employees can and do sell their personal data to the company; if they have qualms about it, they clearly don't overwhelm the rewards. And, given the prevalence of Fitbit and its ilk, there is no doubt that there are those for whom having a measure of all things is immeasurably satisfying. But self-improvement is one thing, and the gradual, subtle introduction of employee monitoring into industries where it was previously thought to be useless or untenable is quite another.

In the age of the quantified self, all labor can ultimately be measured. The consequences of conscribing our working lives to a series of bar charts and pie graphs will eventually touch all of us whether we like it or not, even if it right now it seems like we have a choice.

Caroline O'Donovan is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in San Francisco.

Contact Caroline O'Donovan at caroline.odonovan@buzzfeed.com.

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