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Workplace Trends: Emotional Surveillance Systems

Forget emoticons, people. Technologists have created an "emotional surveillance system" that allows management to track employees' trending emotions. All I can say is :(-.

Microsoft's social networking platform Yammer now includes a feature that captures and averages the emotions in employees' online postings so management can see how morale is trending today. They are happy! They are sad. They are angry! They are content. They are hot 'n cold and changing their minds like a girl changes clothes!

As reports:

The feature, called Crane, was developed by startup Kanjoya, which makes software that does the emotion recognition and logging, with close collaboration with Yammer. Once the feature is switched on for a company's Yammer network, it offers managers a view of the "trending emotions" within a company, using a line graph to show the level of excitement, confusion, and other feelings over time. The topics or words most often associated with those feelings are also shown. The software is able to identify 80 distinct emotions, but it condenses those into 15 for display and shows only the most prevalent ones to reduce the complexity of the interface.
One thing Yammer's e-EQ system can't gauge, however, is humor. So your jokes and sarcastic wit could very well go unnoticed as the many moods of Binky are averaged throughout the work day. It's a real bummer for employees who work really hard on their witty comebacks. Maybe version 2.0 will finally get a sense of humor and stop categorizing sarcasm as a "positive" emotion.

The feature doesn't track individual employees, but it can analyze a company's emotional "influencers" who are able to sway team opinion. This person will probably be your co-worker who is always cranky and complaining about this, that or the other all day long, since this employee tends to be the most emotional and does the most talking. The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as they say. Or at least he or she might stand out on the company's emotional surveillance system?

There might be a few benefits to online emotional surveillance -- namely, if employees overall are trending high on the anger, confusion and disillusionment scales, then management can do something about it. But what will management do? Something? Nothing? Too much? Too little? Tracking employees' emotional states, but doing nothing to alter the negative emotions, could make morale worse instead of better. Management knows we're upset and it's doing NOTHING about it!

Microsoft is apparently trying out the e-EQ system, which might help since morale there appears to be in the toilet over an entirely different set of metrics. But what does it mean for non-Microsofties? Will this technology spread like a STD to infect other work sites? And what are the legal risks for employers who pare down work teams trending high on the "confused" and "angry" scales? Without some advance management planning, these emotional surveillance systems could turn out to be more annoying than a yammering Kanye West tweet. For now, I'll just feel subtly creeped out.


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