BLOG | Managing visibility in a digital world

Think back to earlier this week. Was there a moment where you strategically switched off and on your video during Zoom? I did it so that I could surreptitiously eat my lunch. Did your attempt at “controlling your visibility” work? Which colleagues might have observed your actions? What inferences or assumptions did they make about why you did it? Did your attempt fail if you were observed? If there was a recording of the meeting, your action might be stored forever. What are the consequences of that? One day in the near future, there might be an algorithm that ingests that video and makes an assessment of your performance. How might that change your behavior in Zoom and elsewhere?

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Digital platforms have enabled us to work increasingly remotely, distributed, and asynchronously. As a result, the content of our communication is becoming more visible and persistent. What does our digital activity “say” about us, in the moment and accumulated over time? Undoubtedly the nature of visibility is changing. It’s no longer a matter of turning your back in the subway to block a neighbor from reading your screen. Some employers are going as far to adopt surveillance software to track productivity by measuring time on apps or taking photos of employee’s screens (reference).

At home, we willingly post parts of our lives to social media channels. At work, we create repositories of activity in Slack, Microsoft Teams, Yammer, Whatsapp, and beyond. Our activity can be “seen” by the folks that we interact with, but also by other observers; followers, lurkers, and others with permission. The persistence and accumulation of our digital trails means that these can be accessed long after the fact and potentially by unintended parties and for unintended purposes.

The dimensions of communication visibility

Jeff Treem, Paul Leonardi and KIN’s Bart van den Hooff posit in a recently published paper that we are entering an age of communication visibility that fundamentally changes how we communicate and act. In this new age, our communication is actively and strategically created as well as passively assumed, inferred, and judged by others. Herein, visibility is a key property of digital communication that can “grow or amplify the presentation of communication”, but also “limit, restrict, regulate, vary, and even manipulate communication in various ways.” Bart and co-authors outline three main dimensions of communication visibility:

  1. Actors who are actively creating visible digital trails through communicating via e.g. messaging or activity (likes, response speed, etc.).
  2. Observers who have permission to view actors’ activity (and likely have permission to engage as actors). As observers, they might lurk rather than engage or read through archives. These observers can make inferences, assumptions, and judgements based on actors’ activity.
  3. Socio-material context is the context of interaction, including the features of the technology in terms of visibility: whether content is editable or not, who and how many individuals have access, volume of contributions, other privacy/permissions settings, etc.

For example, a recent study by Ella Hafermalz showed how Strava users modify their behavior to speed up in certain physical stretches; they compete based on the digital traces of others (read our blog, Moving with Technology). Using Strava’s app changes users’ perceptions, behaviors, and experiences in the real world in unique ways. These three dimensions influence each other and co-evolve over time. In our new world, actors, observers, and technology shape and are shaped by each other.

But what is visible?

What is made visible is the content, and the relationships between ourselves and others. Depending on the platform, this can include information about who responds to whom (or doesn’t respond), at what speed, and about what topics. Increasingly edit history in working files can be seen as well to reveal information about the quantity and quality of contributions. Observable at one level higher are the strategies others take to garner visibility. For example, think of that colleague of yours who “likes” and responds to every one of the big bosses’ LinkedIn posts. A larger picture of association, connectivity, strong or weak ties, and contribution can be inferred from this aggregation of activity.

Performing with invisible audiences in mind

Beyond those who we interact with directly, our actions are influenced by real and imagined others, who can “see” our activity. When communication is visible to managers, employees may communicate in ways to build a beneficial profile, e.g. by being extra responsive to requests. On the flip side, employees can also deliberately hide or obfusticate their actions or activity (one colleague had figured out a way to look like she was “on a call” on Skype for Business, the only way to signal to her team that she was unavailable to contact).

It is well known that employers may vet potential candidates by reviewing their activity on social platforms. Candidates who are aware of this possibility could take different approaches to manage their visibility, from sharing strategically with potential hiring managers in mind, to deleting/suspending their public profiles during job hunts, to not sharing at all on social sites.

Thus, this third party or onlooker keeps our actions in check (read our blog on the “onlooker effect”). When we communicate, we communicate with real and imagined audiences. We make assumptions and inferences on their presence and potential judgements and adapt our behaviors accordingly.

Increased visibility can benefit both employees and organizations

Raising visibility through digital systems enables accountability and means for monitoring employees by management. Paradoxically, monitoring and control can be desired by employees if it benefits their work. A recent studyby Ella Hafermalz showed that remote workers purposely “fight to be seen” and create ways to make themselves visible to their colleagues (read our blog, Would you rather be watched or forgotten at work?).

Control and autonomy don’t have to be at odds

Another recently published study by KIN researchers, Amanda Porter and Bart van den Hooff, shows that increased employee visibility can create a win-win situation for both employees and managers. The study showed that the implementation of a mobile Sales Force Automation system bothincreased control by sales managers and the autonomy of the sales reps.

Sales managers got unprecedented insight into the content of their sales reps’ work. All the activities of sales reps conducted at the client side were revealed to managers in real time. Thus, managers could provide relevant, timely coaching, which improved the relationship on both sides. Sales reps could capture on the spot customer information during customer visits and relieved them of doing admin after hours. Using the tool, sales reps could monitor their KPIs, which motivated them to perform better. Reps reported feeling more appreciated by managers and evaluated objectively on performance. Though sales reps lost control through increased visibility, they also gained more autonomy and ability to do their work better. This case showcases the opportunity to co-create win-win, “complementary control” within organizations, rather than having autonomy and control be at odds with each other.

Could radical visibility give rise to new kinds of organizations?

A high tech example, and frontrunner in this space is Satalia, an AI company that is giving employees autonomy over their work, creating a win-win situation between employees and the larger organization (reference). Organizing as a swarm, they leverage technology to balance accountability and authority; all without managers. Their hypothesis is that giving employees autonomy on what to work on and how, gives the company a competitive advantage in product and service delivery. By removing the management layer, they can also offer more competitive salaries. To facilitate this, they deploy machine learning (ML) to assess quantity of work (e.g. Slack activity, email activity, number of code commits), and augment this data with peer to peer contributions to assess quality of work (e.g. leadership). Peers even contribute to setting each other’s salaries. They also use ML combined with optimization to maximize the quality of feedback with the least number of contributors. This example shows that using technology to raise radical visibility/transparency within organizations could fundamentally change how we organize work in the future (also read our vision on the Future of Work post COVID-19).

The problem of persistence and unforeseen future consequences of visibility

If activity is captured for all time, it makes it difficult for individuals to manage their self-presentation and image over longer periods. Individuals have to adopt and adapt long term strategies alongside platforms and observers as all evolve. For example, reflect on how your own social media use or strategy has evolved over time as your social network grew and expanded across multiple channels like Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

Additionally, the accumulation and persistence of our activity means that unintended parties can potentially access our usage data at any time in the future for unintended purposes and with unforeseen consequences. Beyond unintended human observers, what happens when organizations start to leverage machine learning algorithms to analyze employee communications to distill, e.g. psychological valances to assess performance or likeliness to leave the organization? What happens if organizations leverage technology to surveille rather than empower?

Where are we headed?

As we continue working more intensively digitally and remotely, it will be important to keep in mind the potential unintended consequences of increased visibility due to its multidimensional, evolving, and persistent qualities. There has been a worrying uptick in adoption of remote employee surveillance hand in hand with the en masse migration to remote work as a result of COVID-19. But as we’ve seen, technology can be used to create win-win situations for employees and organizations. This calls for open dialogue between employers and employees to co-create solutions that are good for both companies and employees.

This piece was originally published on Medium written for KIN Research.

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