Are workplace sensors a good idea?

Are workplace sensors a good idea?

Everyone has those lull moments at work where we escape the workload for a breather – however, imagine if sensors in your workplace could detect when your productivity slumps and alerted your boss?

The Boston Consulting Group has equipped around 100 volunteer employees in its new Manhattan office with badges that consist of a microphone and a location sensor.

These badges track physical and verbal interactions, for which the company says it intends to use the data to examine the effect of office design on employee communication – Bloomberg reports.

Although the company promises not to use the data for performance evaluation, outside critics have called the plan Orwellian.

In addition, last year, journalists at The Telegraph discovered little black boxes under their desks, with the logo “OccupEye” on them. The National Union of Journalists complained about Big Brother-style surveillance, although the firm insisted the boxes were used to monitor energy costs.

However, the sensors were removed – but that doesn’t mean that your workplace doesn’t have similar measures in place.

“Most people, when they walk into buildings, don’t even notice them,” Joe Costello, Chief Executive Officer of Enlighted, a technology platform that makes sensors, told Bloomberg.

He says these sensors are hidden in lights, ID badges and elsewhere, and that they track things such as employee whereabouts, conference room usage, and how long someone goes without speaking to a colleague.

Costello added that Enlighted sensors are currently collecting data at more than 350 companies - including 15% of the Fortune 500. They also have plans to pilot a badge that allows companies to track specific individuals via an app.

Most companies that use sensors claim that it’s to make spaces more efficient, with a variety of sensors collecting data including generating heat maps, detecting motion, daylight, and energy usage, and adjusting this to employee movement. Recently, we reported on the use of workplace technology to “develop and improve a working environment.”  Colin Stuart, Managing Director of Workplace Consultancy Baker Stuart, explained that the use of sensors can lead employers to make decisions that improve morale, wellbeing, productivity and office efficiency.

Office design company Gensler who have 1,000 Enlighted sensors in its new space in New York agrees. They claim that they’ve already seen a 25% savings in energy costs. In addition, last year, a majority of US workers surveyed by Pew Research Center said that they would tolerate surveillance and data collection in the name of safety.

Whilst it’s unclear how the UK would react to such monitoring, UK employers do have similar rights. According to citizens’ advice, they can monitor: CCTV cameras and video recordings both in and outside the workplace, mails or e-mails, phone logs or recording of phone calls, websites visited, get information from credit reference agencies, collect information through 'point of sale' terminals, such as supermarket checkouts, to check the performance of individual operators.

Monitoring, however must abide to Data protection laws and respect employees. Stuart explains: “When performing a workplace study, it should be conducted openly, with absolute transparency and the aims and benefits should be clearly communicated. Staff should be made aware that the purpose of the study is for the development of the working environment with the aim of improving their working lives. Furthermore, staff should be anonymised with the study being based not on individuals, but the working patterns of the entire organisation.”

With the issue of privacy in mind, “employers that abuse workplace studies as a method of investigation, using its abilities to better understand levels of presence, will find that a negative use of the method will only generate a negative impact.”

Read about how one ingenious employee managed to evade any surveillance from his boss, here.

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