A boost to productivity or slightly sinister? Laura King takes a look at some of the technology that tracks our movements and asks whether it is effective.

As organisations, and individuals, we are usually looking for ways to be better. At work, most of us are already used to having to adopt new, improved systems or protocols, but how would you feel about being microchipped to speed up time spent at the printer? Or having a microphone in your swipe card to see how you interact with colleagues?

Technologies such as these might seem like something out of science fiction, but they very much exist and are being embraced by some as the next step in upping productivity. But can they work? And more crucially, what are the pitfalls that such technologies create?

Big Brother is watching

The most obvious accusation to overcome is that of Orwellian surveillance, which is exactly what befell the Daily Telegraph in 2016 when it fitted devices to desks that could detect whether they were being used. On the face of it, the devices were a good idea: they did not identify individuals, and were simply part of a drive to improve efficiency during periods of low occupancy.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ), however, thought otherwise. Describing the tracking devices as “Big Brother-style surveillance”, the NUJ Assistant General Secretary, Seamus Dooley, insisted that monitoring had no place in the office, adding that: “Workers have very strong privacy rights and these must be protected. The right to be consulted on new procedures governing such data is enshrined in law.”

The tracking devices were removed almost immediately, although this did little to prevent the subsequent media storm.

Technological utopia

On the other side of the coin, you may have heard of Three Square Market, a US company that made headlines around a year ago when it offered its employees the option of having a microchip inserted into their hand. Although the tiny radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip didn’t track employees per se, it allowed them to do all sorts of other things on the move, such as open doors, purchase food from the cafeteria and log onto computers with a wave of their hand.

The media were interested and employees were enthused. At the time, around 50 of the 80 employees voluntarily had the chip implanted.

Similarly, a Boston startup called Humanyze is having success with its use of sociometric badges that record employee’s movement and vocal activity. The data collected is used to map how people interact against other information such as staff turnover, satisfaction and performance. From this, trends can be identified and the workplace can be adapted. In one case study, a bank improved productivity in its call centres by 23% by replicating the break schedule of its top-performing team; in another example, long tables in restrooms were found to boost communication more than other, more expensive interventions.

Weighing the benefits

On paper, other technology such as fitness trackers and global positioning system (GPS) can also offer benefits to wellbeing and productivity. However, they too, are not without their difficulties.

Fitness tracking, for example, can be viewed positively if financial rewards are on the table. A 2017 survey by AXA showed that over half of the people questioned would be open to wearing a fitness device if it was supplied free-of-charge. This increased to over 60% if the company provided a financial incentive to use it. Over 50% were also prepared to share the data with their employees if it helped improve the company’s health and wellbeing programme.

However, a freebie will not win everyone round. The same survey showed that a third of people were not prepared to share their data at all, and a separate survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers suggested that nearly 40% of respondents did not trust their employer to not use the data against them.

These reluctant employees may well be onto something, as commentators warn that concerns around explicit bias creeping are quite valid. In a similar vein to judging an employee based on their willingness to take part in non-work-related activities, it’s certainly not unthinkable to picture a scenario where an employee’s level of activity might inadvertently be used to evaluate merit.

It is also worth considering that fitness devices might not always help long-term wellbeing, particularly if tied to a campaign or competition. Like many short-term drives for improvement, tracking the fitness of teams or individuals can lead to an initial spike in performance followed by a precipitous drop in participation after the initial hype is over.

Cover your tracks

The use of GPS is equally as complex when you put human emotion into the equation, regardless of the obvious benefits, such as improved safety for lone workers and better planning. As perhaps could be expected, a recent survey by TSheets found that while the majority of people still viewed GPS tracking as an invasion of privacy, people were more concerned if they hadn’t used the technology before. In TSheets’ survey, just over 50% of those already using the technology saw privacy as a concern compared to 70% of those who had no prior workplace experience of GPS monitoring.

This data perhaps shows that we do eventually become desensitised to sharing data. For example, it is probably fair to say that, initially, many of us would baulk at the idea of allowing an app to track our location — until that app helps us avoid a traffic jam.

What do you need to consider?

While employees might think that technology is watching their every move, this is often not the case. However, improving productivity though monitoring does need a very careful approach and in particular the following areas need to be thought about.

Culture

Consideration needs to be given to the culture in which the technology is adopted. Employees of Three Square Market work for a small technology company and are likely to be early adopters, while people in call centres are used to having their conversations recorded. In both instances, the devices seemed to be positively received.

Data

There are operational considerations — how is the data owned, accessed, stored and processed? Does the company have the capacity and expertise to interpret the data? Can the data be linked to other metrics to provide enough insight for it to be useful?

The law

Crucially, the legal implications need to be understood. In the UK, organisations must comply with the requirements of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). This means that organisations should let employees know what monitoring is being carried out and, most importantly, be able to justify why the monitoring is taking place.

Trust

Finally, if monitoring does identify areas of improvement, it is good practice to recognise what control the organisation has, and not to expect staff to “fix” the problem themselves. For example, if employees are found to be overworking then the company needs to adapt how it manages the workload, rather than simply sending employees on time management training courses. In this way, monitoring comes from a place of trust and is much more likely to be well received.

Summary

  • Technology can be used for a number of reasons and can boost productivity and benefit employees’ wellbeing.

  • Understanding your workforce and employee engagement is critical if monitoring activities are to be successful.

  • To avoid accusations of “Big Brother” employers need to come from a position of trust, be transparent with employees, and work with them on why the data is being collected and how it is to be used.

  • Any data that is collected must comply with the GDPR.

Last reviewed 6 November 2018