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Aware, a platform that analyzes employee behavior across messaging platforms like Slack, today announced that it raised $60 million in a series C round led by Goldman Sachs Growth Equity, with participation from Spring Mountain Capital, Blue Heron Capital, Allos Ventures, Ohio Innovation Fund, JobsOhio, and Rev1 Ventures. The company says that the capital, which brings its total raised to over $86.9 million, will be put toward product development, sales efforts, and hiring.
“This specific investment will allow us to make significant progress towards helping organizations see the human difference across all functions of the business. We expect to rapidly expand our current integrations into new platforms, as well as to ingest and analyze digital signals from all areas of the organization,” cofounder and CEO Jeff Schumann told VentureBeat via email. “We started in text conversations, files, and images, and we’re already working towards voice and video signals.”
The trend toward remote and hybrid work has prompted some companies to increase their use of monitoring technologies to ensure that employees remain on task. Whether real or imagined, some managers believe that productivity has decreased at their company since staffers started working from home during the pandemic. But these monitoring technologies threaten to infringe on workers’ privacy, creating a chilling effect on speech that challenges the company line.
Columbus, Ohio-based Aware, which was founded in 2017 by Schumann, James Tsai, Matt Huber, and Shawn Domer, leverages APIs and webhooks to collect and process communications from platforms including Slack, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Yammer, and Workplace from Facebook. The company applies natural language processing and computer vision technologies to predict message sentiment and detect screenshots, among other tasks, identifying relationships between messages to provide context beyond replies.
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“Aware continues to be the leading force for digital collaboration insights, giving companies a better understanding of their workforce and the ability to manage the risks associated with digital conversations and remote collaboration,” Schumann said in a statement. “Aware’s continued adoption as essential tech further shows how AI [is] key to building more transformational businesses.”
But some of Aware’s capabilities might give employees pause, like the platform’s ability to preserve files, edits, and deletions as well as metadata like message locations. While Aware claims its ability to collect and normalize conversations from multiple sources might be useful to employers in search of governance and search solutions, employees might perceive it as a way for companies to tamp down on protests or put workers’ activities under a microscope.
Employee monitoring software is a broad category, but generally speaking, it encompasses programs that can measure an employee’s idle time, access webcams, track keystrokes and web history, take screenshots, and record emails, chats, and phone calls. In a survey of employers, ExpressVPN found that 78% were using monitoring software like TimeDoctor, Teramind, Wiretap, Interguard, Hubstaff, and ActivTrak to track their employees’ performance or online activity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Reports and Data predicts that by 2027, the global market for employee remote monitoring software will hit $1.3 billion.
Pitching itself as an HR solution, Aware claims it can store all public and private messages, attachments, and images sent by employees, recreating conversations in an “easy-to-understand” format. Aware purports to detect inappropriate, offensive, and hateful speech, employing AI to extract top-level message information.
In this way, Aware’s platform is akin to Awareness’ Interguard, which can scan emails and messages for particular keywords. Wiretap and Qumram similarly monitor chat forums like Slack, Yammer, and WhatsApp, using AI to identify “harassment, threats, and intimidation.”
“[With Aware, companies can] automate community management processes, identify incidents of insider threats, [and] identify toxic employees in the workplace,” the company’s website reads. “[Customers can] enable rules that automatically prevent against unsafe sharing and safeguard against HIPAA, FINRA, or PCI violations. [They can also] scan workplace communication content and file shares to identify instances of inappropriate sharing and breaches of confidentiality. [And they can protect their] employees from sexual harassment, discrimination, and bullying by monitoring public and private communications.”
But biases in the algorithms could color the results of Aware’s assessments. Studies have shown that text-based sentiment analysis systems can exhibit prejudices along race, ethnic, and gender lines — for example, associating Black people with more negative emotions like anger, fear, and sadness. AI models also tend to inconsistently analyze hate speech, with research showing that automated moderation platforms struggle with “Black-aligned English,” quotations of hate speech, slurs, and spelling variations of hateful words.
Schumann claims that Aware is one of the only companies that trains models on the interactions “within enterprise collaboration.” The net result is AI that’s “two to three times as accurate as competitor AI and machine learning services” in the market, he says.
“Aware is the future of human-centered business. We understand and make sense of all the human interactions happening in the organization,” Schumann continued. “We are training on a data lake consisting of billions of normalized, anonymized interactions that is growing daily. This gives us a unique advantage. Aware is positioned to know the customer and their own DNA quite well.”
Beyond the potential bias issues, research shows employees are disinclined to support the deployment of software like Aware’s because they feel like they’re constantly being watched. A recent Gartner survey found that knowledge workers were nearly two times more likely to pretend to be working after their companies invested in tracking systems.
Workers have reason to be concerned. According to a recent complaint filed by the National Labor Relations Board, Google spied on its staffers — two of which were in the process of organizing protests against the company — before terminating several. Call center workers face pressure to sign a contract that lets their employers install in-home cameras to monitor their work. And Amazon delivery drivers say surveillance cameras installed in their vans have made them lose income for reasons beyond their control, like when cars cut them off.
Of the remote or hybrid workers surveyed in the ExpressVPN paper, 59% said that they felt stress or anxiety as a result of their employer monitoring them. Another 43% said that the surveillance felt like a violation of trust, and more than half said they’d quit their job if their manager implemented surveillance measures.
In the U.S., employees have little in the way of legal recourse when it comes to monitoring software. The 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) allows companies to surveil communications for “legitimate business-related purposes.” Only two states, Connecticut and Delaware, require notification if employees’ email or internet activities are being monitored, while Colorado and Tennessee require businesses to set written email monitoring policies.
However, the ECPA does prevent employers from monitoring private messages and email accounts that are password-protected and sent from a personal device — unless an employee gives consent. Last October, retailer H&M was fined $40 million for storing sensitive employee information on topics like family issues and religious beliefs. Aware, like other companies providing workplace monitoring software, is bound by this constraint.
Not all employees oppose monitoring software — so long as they’re made aware of the surveillance, how and where the data is maintained, and whether it’s shared with other parties or companies. Over half of office workers surveyed by Robert Half were open to digital surveillance if it led to perks, like the ability to work preferred hours or remotely. Microsoft touts its Viva platform as one such pro-worker solution, with privacy controls including an anonymized, general productivity score for teams and recommendations for employees’ mental health.
Aware, like its rivals, is growing at a fast clip during the pandemic. Revenue has “consistently” climbed 170% to 200% year-over-year for the last several years, and the company, which employs a workforce of around 60 employees, has over 1 million licensed users across more than 17 countries.
“Our growth was accelerated in part due to [the pandemic] and the emergency shift to remote work. It made the adoption of technologies, such as Teams, Slack, and Zoom, happen virtually overnight,” Schumann said. “This is the dataset we tap into, and now these companies need controls in place for the tech. It also means the focus on employee engagement is incredibly top-of-mind, as organizations struggle to understand their largely remote — or hybrid — workforce. [We] saw an immediate transformation in growth from our existing customer base to the tune of an over 300% increase in data created after the start of mandated lockdowns. We also saw a rapidly increasing demand for the Aware platform, for both our risk mitigation capabilities and our organizational insights.”
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