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Employers are mining the data their workers generate (wsj.com)
122 points by JumpCrisscross 29 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 112 comments

The idea that McKesson does this, along with their completely tone deaf idea of adding open offices to increase retention, points to a bigger issue: a complete lack of understanding of people. These people running these companies are utterly detached from the reality that their work force lives day to day, such that they think implementing one of the most universally hated office schemes and mass surveillance are ways to keep people.

Management isn't dumb. They understand the worker-employer balance at play. They're not going to come out directly and say they're doing this because they want ass-in-seats, they always have an official cover story. In this case, it's to "increase office retention".

There is no tone-deafness going on; they know exactly what it means and what they want, and how to sell it down the chain. Think of it this way, every time management tells you that there's no raise because of budget reasons, are you really going to take that at face value?

Business is business, and we are workers. If we want serious change, it's no use complaining about this... they'll do whatever anyways. We should engaging in politics, out on the streets kind of stuff.

Also, in a situation where interests are not very aligned, there is a benefit for the stronger side to seem "dumb" and "clueless" to the other side. It both eases the tension a bit (being the smarter guy is flattering), and allows to use the veil of "acting stupid" to conceal calculated adversarial actions.

Think of it this way, every time management tells you that there's no raise because of budget reasons, are you really going to take that at face value?

I've believed this exactly once. When upper management also received no bonuses that year.

> Such that they think implementing one of the most universally hated office schemes

I'not sure open offices are so unpopular in practice.

I suspect a handful of people with misophonia are passionately against them. A sizable minority think they makes work more fun, and the remainder are indifferent.

As someone who loathes them myself, I read all kinds of articles about how awful they are. But that's how news works: I'm a likely click for any article that vindicates my hatred of my stupid boss. So while I've seen plenty of surveys showing people complaining about it, I'm doubtful I'm seeing the same data management is.

I've simply never seen anyone really protest it. It's a small sample, but if I've worked with a hundred people, that predicts the real value is small. I even had a team that actively wanted management to remove the dividers when we had half-cubes, and I was the lone holdout!

There now studies that show it causes less collaboration, especially deep collaboration that requires ability to contemplate and speak freely.

Some of the studies: https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.chicagotribune.com/business... https://www.oxfordeconomics.com/when-the-walls-come-down

Now, imagine you are measuring the collaboration by the amount of meetings and chats/email. Of course these increase if we can no longer chat in your office! Now I have to book time or send you a slack/chat/whatever because having a conversation now requires finding that private space.

So previously unmeasured collaboration is replaced with lower fidelity, but measurable collaboration.

The freeloaders love it because it helps them goof off together and they have no need to concentrate because other people carry them

Open offices have the benefit mostly of cutting costs as less floorspace is needed but they're on average a less productive and more stressful environment for the employee. The 90s cube farm was already pretty short on privacy and the open office is even more extreme.

From what I've seen people who work in open offices try to find ways to work somewhere quieter when possible.

If open offices are worth it entirely depends on if saving on rent or having more productive employees is more worth it. Generally I see a trend towards open office + shared semiprivate spaces. Like meeting rooms or phone booth like cubicles with doors.

> a complete lack of understanding of people

People? Human resources.

You know, things you use up and discard, like any resource.

It used to be just "personnel," not sure when the change happened but I'd spitball around the '50s in the US. The name change was more significant than simply a fancy new title, the idea went back to WWI and the labor movement.

Oddly enough, though it sounds more pejorative than "personnel" to me, "human resources" was thought to be positive as a resource is valuable.

And, in fairness, while your manager typically makes the call to fire you, HR are the ones who swing the axe, so no name changes can make them warm and cuddly.

I’m pretty sure the personnel office was around at least until the late 70s or early 80s.

"Human People Department" doesn't sound quite as pithy.

HR workers refer to themselves as “HR professionals” and it’s not just because “Human Resources Resources” sounds silly

Used to be called Personnel Management.

You joke but a lot of companies are renaming HR to make it sound more friendly.

"People Ops" in Valley-speak

Can't tell if "people operations" used at many tech companies is better or worse.

The only reason a company switches to open offices is to save money, just like the removing of free sodas. The will claim any other reason officially though.

"Imagine the extra collaboration we'll be able to have!"

Indeed, and that's precisely what most probably didn't need or want.

Another valid reason is so management can monitor more people at one time and make sure they're working (busily typing away at their keyboard).

If you need a break, use http://hackertyper.net/ to appear super productive!

Because butts in chairs and fingers smushing keys is what's important.

There's also the "It's what all the cool companies are doing" factor.

This is what I really am having trouble understanding.

How disconnected from reality do you need to be to think surveillance and converting to an open office is going to somehow increase retention of employees?

A surprising number of people in management seem to think "Oh, that'll make us very silicon valley and signal how cool & hip we are!"

And a surprising number of people who haven't had to work in open offices before think "Oh, that'll be cool: social, innovative, and collaborative!"

In the UK almost all offices are open offices. I am not sure of the benefits of a cubicle as i never worked in one.

Mostly sound suppressing, but does guarantee privacy (I've had to tell someone to fuck off as I'm doing managerial work)

Thats a good point re managerial stuff. So did i and i always had to sit in a corner or somewhere secluded.

I worked in a cubicle when I did U.S. government IT. I can't tell any difference from the open plan offices I work in now that I'm in the private sector.

I've never worked in an open office precisely because I am certain that I'd hate it.

I'm guessing some salesmen sold them on this idea.

Sometimes, Hanlon's razor works in reverse: don't attribute to stupidity what can be adequately explained by m̵a̵l̵i̵c̵e̵ marketing.

In this case, I think that's especially true, but maybe not from the perspective you intended: they were sold on the idea of reduced costs, and they're marketing the changes to their employees (and the public) as retention-improving changes, despite the bald-faced absurdity of such a statement.

You get a bunch of "yes men" together and group think takes over and you end up with this. Rationality goes out the window. It has to because you have to say, "yes".

In my experience working, my theory is the over emphasis of goal setting. Everyone has to be doing something, even if it is counterproductive. No one ever says, maybe take some time to sit back to take some time to think about the best way to approach something, it's always just do do do.

I totally agree. I wonder to myself sometimes, "where did this person's empathy go?".

Next thing you know, business owners will think it's a good idea to have everyone put on an eeg skull cap to monitor thoughts, emotions and attention while employees work!

Vote with your feet if the surveillance starts feeling creepy. I think people sign up to do a job, not be a guinea pig in some sort dystopian Skinner box. There should be limits on what personal information is collected.

"a complete lack of understanding of people."

As a former McKesson employee, i'd say you found the issue.

points to a bigger issue: a complete lack of understanding of people.

What makes you think they even want this kind of understanding? Not to mention the handwavey vagueness of "understanding people."

Psychology is the science of understanding people. There's also the burgeoning field of evolutionary psychology. There's nothing handwavey about any of it, at least when it's done well.

At a company like McKesson, the only psychology you're likely to encounter is organizational (I/O), and, like psychology in general, many many many people do not believe in it, do not see the value in it, and heed cultural barriers to changing these attitudes. To the degree that I/O psych is a factor in corporate life these days, the vast majority will be a form of Taylorism, which is 100+ years old.

i wonder if the higher ups are subjected to open work spaces

yes, very open, and they drive around them in little golf carts

McKesson has not yet determined what changes it will make as a result of the findings, but has considered adopting a more open office plan to encourage more discussion between employees.

LOL, way to be super creepy AND learn exactly the wrong lesson from this.

Imagine telling your investors how much money you spent to decrease morale and increase turnover cargo-culting SV companies. This article reads like something out of a Dilbert strip.

I can't imagine why they're having problems with "higher turnover".

>McKesson has not yet determined what changes it will make as a result of the findings, but has considered adopting a more open office plan to encourage more discussion between employees.

The beatings will continue until morale improves.

People keep forgetting that equipment and subscriptions are your employers property and data, not yours. They have the right to access anything they pay for without telling you. It's important to remain aware of this any time you do anything for work.

Back before we had computers, there was nothing stopping a company from opening every memo that came through the mail room and recording every phone conversation and opening your file cabinets when you weren't there. The diffence was it was a lot more work for them to do those things, so it never really came up. Now it's super easy for a company to process every single thing you do or say, even including recording audio in the workplace.

So maybe it's time for us to look for some legal protections for worker privacy?

> even including recording audio in the workplace

There are some protections against recording people without their knowledge, even if you're in a workplace.

> So maybe it's time for us to look for some legal protections for worker privacy?

And documenting the (limited) protections that already exist.

> There are some protections against recording people without their knowledge, even if you're in a workplace.

So, bury the required notice inside the legalese of all that paperwork everyone has to sign when they get hired. They signed, so they know about it, right?

> there was nothing stopping a company from opening every memo that came through the mail room

I hope I'm misunderstanding this, because I read it as saying they can open your mail...which I thought was a felony taken very seriously.

No, you're exactly right.

If someone sent a letter to me, but they accidentally put your address on it, you would be committing a felony against me if you opened the letter, even though it was delivered to your address.

You would know it wasn't your letter to open by the fact that someone else's name was on it.

Your employer can forbid you from using your work address to receive deliveries (even sending UPS and FedEx packages back when they aren't addressed to the company - or penalizing you for requesting shipments to the company address).

But if they ever interfere with a USPS delivery, or confiscate or destroy and UPS or FedEx delivery, they would be committing mail fraud.

If you are legally employed for a company, and someone sends you a letter via USPS to you business address, and someone at your company interferes with the delivery of that letter to you in any way, they are committing a felony. Doubly so if they open the letter to see what's inside.

> If you are legally employed for a company, and someone sends you a letter via USPS to you business address, and someone at your company interferes with the delivery of that letter to you in any way, they are committing a felony. Doubly so if they open the letter to see what's inside.

Are you saying they are required to accept your mail, and any company policy forbidding this is loosely connected with committing a felony?


If you work at an address, and someone tries to contact you via the mail at that address, and they put your work address and name on the envelope, then there is a legal obligation that you receive the letter, or the post office be informed that you are unreachable at that address so they can return to sender.

If your company receives a piece of mail with your name on it, and they prevent its safe delivery to you or safe return to the sender, then they have committed a felony against you.

It is a serious crime to interfere with the delivery of the mail.

Even just opening your neighbor's mailbox to give them a note is TWO felonies.

One felony for invasion of privacy from opening a mailbox that wasn't assigned to your address or an address you are authorized to collect mail for.

One felony for bypassing the USPS system and defrauding them out of postage by using mailboxes for private parcel delivery.

Do. Not. Fuck. With. The. Mail.

They could open the internal company memos, not the stuff with stamps.

As well as bugging your phone. I don't think companies were ever allowed to do that.

But it's not _your_ mail/phone.

Sure they could. It’s their phone. As long as they buried in the hiring paperwork that all calls were recorded your consent was part of your employment.

It's very different if you sign a document consenting to it than if they do it without telling you (which is considered wiretapping by federal law and is also taken very seriously). Employee agreements aren't like EULAs; you should actually read them because it's probably your livelihood.

And if they do include it in the employee agreement like you suggest, it wouldn't be too difficult to create a PR headache for them by alerting the media.

I remember bringing this up to a colleague at a conference trying to make a developer tool that collected and tracked metrics around what you were typing/commiting etc with the goal of helping the developer visually track their learning.

It wasn't a terrible idea if just developers used it personally, but the moment an employer starts using it, it would end up heading toward major creepsville to the point I'd refuse to work for an employer who mandated it.

It is scary at times; we try to do so many things with data without actually thinking about the consequences of doing so until someone starts doing stuff we're uncomfortable with with it.

I'm careful pointing out this type of thing to people, as I'm really not trying to rain on anyone's parade... But there's a reason Frankenstein's Monster is such an evocative figure. The endeavors we pursue may be our Magnum Opus, but the consequences of just throwing the results out there is worth substantial contemplation before just tossing it out there. You can never take it back.

>They have the right to access anything they pay for without telling you.

No, they don't.

"I’m not all tinfoil hat or anything" - To be honest, you'd only be a tinfoiler if it wasn't the case. We can guarantee in this information age, your information is collected, potentially by multiple parties. You can rest assured that if your internet traffic hits US network nodes, they are collecting at least some data. A good example is the Kazakhstan mitm stuff going on. We know the US tries to backdoor encryption algo's. They are just less blatant about it. You can guarantee that China, the UK and numerous other governments are at least trying to listen.

I’m also in this business [1], the reality is everyone has to do it to compete. These systems help you fire bad apples, which could bring down your business. Personally started my company because I saw the lack of understanding and abuse of these systems.

Not a single company I know of built their systems to increase retention. No matter what they claim, HR doesn’t really care about that - they care about bad apples. It’s for insider threat detection and mitigation. Fire the trouble makers, keep the people who do work by the system metrics. The problem is that the system metrics don’t reflect what employers look for (skill sets, influence, etc) that’s why I started my business — to focus on skill sets and knowledge retention.

In any case, is this a bad thing? I don’t know.

It’s a fine line companies that build mass surveillance tread. HR and management typically fully trust the system numbers. Meaning, the amount you spend on email becomes a promotable/fireable metric... what if you just email efficiently or you use email ineffectively, the system may not pick that up.

Most of these surveillance companies are unscrupulous and the management of the companies they sell to fall into the point system trap. There’s also no getting away from it. Every large company has, or will have these systems. So, the best thing you can do (and the difference with my company) is you make it clear to employees and try to provide benefits in some way. Our company uses as chat bot and provides a search engine. Most companies provide nothing to the employees, just monitor and fire them.

[1] https://metacortex.me/

In any case, is this a bad thing? I don’t know

If the benefit of catching a bad apple is less than the downside of 100+ pissed employees due to being spied on, it is a bad thing, specially when a few KPI can't give you an accurate view of an employee's performance or impact.

Typo on your landing page, guy. "satisfaciton"

The article presents the ideal of this technology, how it’s meant to gently improve productivity, guide training and alert about problem employees. Perhaps they are marketing to employers who haven’t yet jumped on the bandwagon, perhaps to non-US companies? But companies are little dictatorships and once you give top level managers this snooping capability, leaders can’t help themselves from making personal personnel decisions which erodes company talent. Instead of centers of excellence it creates centers of social compliance. I see a trend in VC backed valley companies, where this technology is well-entrenched, that favors inept-but-familiar culture, as long as your workplace data falls below the radar, you have a little expertise and you are above average social, then you have a job for life. But if you push your personal boundaries in the pursuit of excellence, and criss cross the harmonious flow of work-as-usual then you’re flagged and operating under negative management bias. This is because it requires management to be far more mature and impersonal than it’s reasonable to expect. The Scott Forstalls of the world are more likely to be driven out in favor of the nice guy who says nice things about your management style on Slack. It undermines the traditional go-get-em startup culture which helped the valley create great new technologies.

there’s something uniquely soul crushing about working in a corporate environment. After 6 years of it I think I’ve really had enough. I don’t think we as humans were programmed to live this way.

some corporate setups let you get away with 10-20% effort, while collecting a "tech salary". that includes being detached from all shared suffering, political game playing, etc. depending on where you're at in life, this can absolutely be worth it.

sure, you won't get to senior VP but you can use that other 80% for ... self improvement.

Is anyone familiar with what data Slack makes available to management? Can they see a nice breakdown of when I was online?

I don't have an answer, but it always surprised me what people would say either in Direct Messages or in private channel. This is a corporate slack, I'm pretty sure management can access all conversations, even in DM or private channels.

You can't directly access DMs, but if you pay slack enough to export data for data compliance (I think it's the most expensive tier but it may be a lower one, but definitely not the free one), DMs are exported in that file, so you can indirectly get access to DMs that way.

I know, at least at our tier, I cannot access private messages.

Even if weren't possible now, it may be possible in the future because Slack (in practice) owns and controls that data without any oversight from you. Anything you say might be deleted after a while, or might be held indefinitely.

Well... Yeah. I didn't intend to imply that it will never be a feature (it might already be in higher tiers), and I never intended to imply anything about Slack's data retention.

I was just stating that at the moment, at my tier, I am unable to see private messages.

Your employer can always change your password and then login as you to read your private messages. It leaves behind a trace (you've gotta reset your password afterwards, they can't restore your old one), but it's a "workaround".

User ID, Username, Email, Account Creation, Account Type, Days Active, Messages Posted, Daily/Weekly Active Members, Daily/Weekly Members who Posted, % Public Messages, % Private Channel Messages, % Direct Messages.

On a per channel basis you can see members who posted, members who viewed, changes in members who posted, reactions added, members who reacted, # messages posted, total membership count.

Those are what I've found just poking around. I dont really check the analytics of our workspace so I may be missing some. It doesn't look like there is a super-easy way to look up the last time a specific member was online - but there very well could be depending on the plan. Or I could be missing where I look it up.

The full enterprise version lets you export the entire message history.

Sole exception, private messages.

I don't think we have the most enterprise version of Slack, but as an admin the data available to me is # of days active of the last 30 days and # of messages sent over the last 30 days.

I don’t think this is especially bad though am perhaps biased. If anyone is curious about their own data, Office365 exposes a nice API to get email and calendar data, as well as one called “People” that calculates an edge strength to others based on the various things. You usually have permission to pull your own data without corporate involvement.

Perhaps to rephrase the question. I hear a lot of privacy concerns about something like Facebook that knows too much about you and calculates all sorts of things. I agree with those concerns. Are people equally concerned if a metadata analysis reveals that individuals who communicate with a wider network of other employees tend to do better or worse, or quit or whatever- and you are an anonymized part of the individuals that led to that conclusion?

Personally I don’t care about this data. I am simply concerned it’s going to be interpreted incorrectly. Doing this kind of data analysis with just metadata is hard, and it’s really easy to make major mistakes.

"McKesson has not yet determined what changes it will make as a result of the findings, but has considered adopting a more open office plan to encourage more discussion between employees."

Sure, that's going to help with retention.

It will, actually. It works like this: make the working environment so miserable that the only people who will stay are people who absolutely don’t have any other options and will never speak up or organize against abuse. Bingo, you have a group of people who will never go anywhere!

You may be joking but it's true. This is essentially the core of why companies hire H1-B workers.

IBM claims to be able to predict with 95% accuracy which employees will quit.

This seems super helpful as an employer.


Without any insider information, I feel confident guessing that the accuracy number is merely % correct in environments where people quitting is relatively rare to begin with. If 95% of people aren’t planning to quit next year, 95% accuracy is remarkably easy to achieve.

> 95% accuracy

Fuck everything about putting percentages without false positives and false negatives.

I know this is a cheap potshot, but who has a keyboard setup like that? https://images.wsj.net/im-90409?width=1260&size=0.6666666666...

And the caption:

    Diana Hubbard, working from her home office in Texas, says she does not communicate about her private life on work devices at all. PHOTO: JONATHAN ZIZZO FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

My setup at home is a 3-foot monitor that I sometimes split-screen Mac and Windows on. I don't like to use Mac keyboards on Windows (and vice-versa), so rather than using Synergy I have two keyboards / mice at the desk -- one on a tray, and one on top.

It works nicely for me.

In my experience I've yet to encounter a USB switch that will forward the LCD display data properly to the G15 keyboard. Although, I was using cheap USB and KVMs switches.

Another good question is who uses an overpriced "gamer" keyboard for work?

"Gamer" equipment tends to be far more reasonably priced than most good office-oriented equivalents. They also seem to be the only laptop segment that hasn't completely fallen to anorexia.

My old company ended up standardizing on Fnatic keyboards because they were the cheapest way to get silent Cherry switches with a reasonable layout.

I also used a gaming MSI laptop, because it was cheaper to buy and upgrade that than to buy a reasonable business Dell. ThinkPads weren't much better eiter (but also not an option anyway, thanks to Superfish and co).

My office has a large number of what I'd call "gaming borderline" keyboards mostly because people are looking for whatever has decent switches for not high prices. Also why Logitech makes the K840 I think, not that I'm recommending it.

Gaming keyboards tend to be the cheapest high-quality mechanical keyboards.

This looks like something out of the Terry Gilliam movie "Brazil".

on TV shows, when someone has that many keyboards then their desk is usually also inside a Faraday cage.

Someone who hasn't heard of USB Switches.

Last time I tried a usb switch it would flip out and cause issues (it was doing the monitors too, and it was cheap). I forget what the specific use case was, but at my house we definitely had 2 keyboards on top of each other. It was a temporary set up of two computers at the same station, so didn't warrant looking into a better switch. If I ran that setup daily in the long run, I probably would have.

Someone who's IT department has plenty of keyboards but no USB switches on hand at the particular minute they are given hardware.

I've seen people have multiple keyboards for creative suites (editing).

Working for a startup that gave me a blank laptop and told me to set it up the way I liked is wonderful.

I think most Software Engineers don't have to worry as much about the spying, as we have full control over our system.

Corporate users, with locked down machines, however, should be wary.

Hopefully this is just US-based employee surveillance as this type of employee-data data mining is strictly illegal in Germany.

It's a pity that a country needs a Nazi holocaust to realize that mass surveillance is a bad thing.

The US will learn, as will the UK and Australia.

I would be more understanding of employers on this stuff if they also created dashboards of how much of our personal time got interrupted by work.

How am I supposed to read this paywalled article? I'm not paying for it.

Usually you can use Outline, but it looks like they've stopped supporting WSJ urls.

Why do you feel you have a right to read this article? WSJ has paid someone to write it and for the infrastructure to deliver it to you (and technically, for the bandwidth as well - however negligible, there is a real financial cost associated with delivering the content to your computer that does add up). Either pay up or leave, but don't complain that you don't get it for free.


Attacking a fellow user like that will get you banned here, regardless of how provocative their comment was or feels.

Also, complaints about paywalls are off topic, so please don't post them: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10178989. Yes, the situation sucks, but every one of these subthreads is the same. Readers don't come here for tedious repetition, but to avoid it.


Why do you allow paywalls though if people can't even read them? It's stupid. Just disallow the paywalled domains from being posted. It's not rocket science. If you think you actually have any control, do it.

We allow paywalls that have workarounds. Workaround means people can read it. Please see https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=10178989 and https://news.ycombinator.com/newsfaq.html.

The reason we don't disallow all paywalls, but only the ones that have no workaround, is that HN would be much worse off without stories from the NYT, WSJ, Economist, New Yorker, and many others. https://hn.algolia.com/?query=by:dang%20paywalls&sort=byDate...

All I wanted via my original comment in this thread is the workaround. People like others and you offer a lot of advice, but not the workaround I sought. I don't want to have to read ten pages to find the workaround either.

> All I wanted via my original comment in this thread is the workaround

In that case you could simply have asked for it.

I effectively did ask for it. You're no less useless than the other person. I recommend you stop wasting people's time on this board, and learn to be helpful when help is asked.

"How am I supposed to read this paywalled article? I'm not paying for it." read like a complaint to me, rather than a question. Now that you say that, though, it's clear that I could have read it the other way.

I'm a moderator here, so it's my job to make sure the community follows the site guidelines. That includes not posting personal attacks, which you just did again. If you keep doing that we're going to have to ban you. Would you please read https://news.ycombinator.com/newsguidelines.html and use this site as intended?

I'm not asking you to leave HN, I was suggesting you leave the WSJ website. And I didn't realize you were complaining about it being on HN (which I agree with) - I thought you were complaining about the fact the article was paywalled to begin with, my mistake.

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