Cisco, with Webex, delicately moves to 'instrument' employees — without violating privacy

The pandemic and the rapid shift from work to home offices wrought a lot of changes. Companies like Cisco are now shifting to meet the New Normal.

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Editor's note: Cisco is a client of the author.

This week's big event was Cisco Live, a virtual affair that focused on analysts and reporters as the company showcased  Webex and the related 400+ improvements implemented during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The past year has forced companies to rethink videoconferencing offerings like Webex, which went from occasional use to general — often daily — use, allowing remote employees to connect. Three products rose to the top: Microsoft Teams (Microsoft is also a client), Zoom, and Webex. 

What made the Webex effort stand out was a heavy influence by Francine Katsoudas. She runs Cisco's HR department and has the unique title of Chief People, Policy and Purpose Officer. 

Let's talk about why this integration with HR is critically important to the future of many collaborative products. 

The critical need to 'instrument' employees

There were a number of surprising positives to working from home. People had more time because they didn't have to commute, productivity rose in the companies I deal with, and the pandemic forced major overhauls of videoconferencing software that has historically underperformed their potential for travel replacement. But there were downsides, too. Work/life balance was an issue for many, some people felt out of touch and isolated, many employees reported focus and depression problems, and managers struggled with being remote. 

Ideally, you'd take videoconferencing software and couple it with other tools to keep an eye on employees, but that creates privacy problems. Many companies, including Cisco, see privacy as a fundamental right. Balancing management's increased need to "instrument" employees with natural concerns that people don't want to be spied on became a problem. 

The solution requires someone who understands the complex nature of the issue and who can make valid and acceptable suggestions on how to balance the two: creating something that gives management the tools it needs without infringing on  employee privacy, a core Cisco goal. 

What Katsoudas adds to the equation

Addressing this balance is where Katsoudas's role is key — and other firms developing and using tools like this should look at what Cisco did and emulate it. The goal: find ways to abstract any employee data to deliver key insights into worker performance while also providing employees with detailed information on their performance. 

The underlying theory seems to be that if organizations can help employees better understand how they're doing without violating their privacy, they will work to improve. And they'd be better able to determine whether they have a problem and more likely to ask for help, again while preserving privacy. 

Management would get generic reports that allow managers to address large-scale issues but would have to rely on employees coming forward to address more granular, personal issues. Done correctly, this should become a forcing function where an employee recognizes that if they have a problem but want to advance, their best path isn't to cover up the problem but to go to management and seek help. 

For this to work, management needs to be trained to function more aggressively as coaches and reward, not punish, employees that ask for help. HR is ideal for helping with both the training and the approach to assure employee participation. 

If practices such as forced ranking aren't in place, the result should be a better running unit with team members serving better as team players. This approach allows team members to step in and assist struggling peers without involving management. 

HR's involvement helps make sure this is a process that evolves over time, with the operational teams to improve and adjust for changes continuously.

An AI future?

I can see a future of offerings such as this increasingly tied to artificial intelligence (AI). It has access to the metadata that surrounds employees. It can alert if and when an employee needs help they haven't asked for or are becoming disgruntled and angry with the team, management, or the  company.  The AI could operate confidentially until a risk threshold is reached, warning the employee as their behavior slips and alerting management if it looks like someone is spiraling out of control. 

AI could also look at data and identify and rank group interactions, compiling what successful groups do that seem to help and what seems tot hamper the process. This data could then be packaged and distributed to employees, both inside and outside the company, to improve the collaborative process. 

Finally, AI could identify behavior that suggests an employee is having problems before things get out of hand. First, it would  alert the employee involved, then if the behavior continues, alert management. And throughout the process, it would maintain employee privacy until management needs to be brought in. 

Wrapping up

Videoconferencing products like the one from Webex have advanced a great deal in the past year. What makes Cisco's effort stand out is its inclusion of Katsoudas, the head of Cisco HR, as a critical part of the development process. She helped the team better balance privacy and control while assuring the result's success; it's a benefit to Cisco internally and to Cisco's Webex customers. 

This unique employee focus has allowed Webex to stand out more as an employee motivation-and-care tool rather than just a communications tool. As this tool evolves— and AI is better integrated into it — I expect that the benefits to productivity (without an adverse impact on privacy) will increasingly differentiate the Webex offering from rivals. And it shows how HR plays a critical role in any company-wide productivity effort.

Copyright © 2021 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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