- Workplace surveillance is becoming increasingly common, with as many as half of all organisations using some sort of non-conventional monitoring technology, research from IT consultancy firm Gartner shows.
- New innovations have allowed companies to use facial scanning, microchips, listening devices, email scanning and data mining to keep a track of staff for security, logistics and resource purposes.
- While currently the technology is fairly innocuous and staff are consulted prior to implementation, there is a potential for the technology to overstep into abuse.
It sounds like an episode of Black Mirror: you arrive at work one day and someone from HR inserts a microchip into your hand to monitor where you are at all times.
While it may be an extreme example, workplace surveillance is becoming increasingly prevalent, according to business consultancy firm Gartner.
“Technology is making it more cost-effective and easier to get access to employee data of all kinds,” senior executive advisor Robin Boomer told Business Insider Australia.
“There are specific applications where organisations with flexible arrangements are using things like tracking employee location data so that employees are able to work from anywhere and their colleagues and peers can get ahold of them and communicate with them more readily,” he said.
Half of all organisations are already using a form of non-traditional monitoring on their workforce, Gartner’s research shows. That includes the use of biometrics — such as fingerprint or face recognition — as well as digital tools to analyse the text of employee emails to understand who’s talking and meeting with whom.
Compare that to 2015, where less than a third reported monitoring employees. It may sound invasive but, with that proportion tipped to hit 80% of all organisations within the next two years, it’s a growing reality for many. That’s despite Australians and Kiwis typically being less accepting of that kind of surveillance their than global peers.
“It’s becoming more common, although data collection techniques are primarily those that employees would already be aware of, and participating in,” Boomer said.
Some, however, would still be shocked to learn exactly what kind of methods of monitoring are available.
When it comes to a microchip, for example, it can actually serve a useful purpose.
“Microchipping lets organisations to be able to know where they are in time and space all the time,” Boomer said.
“Some who are using it for their executives, where they have to travel to business locations that might be somewhat dangerous and where kidnapping is still a viable and thriving business. So they need to use that information track the security of executives travelling to parts of Latin America for example where they would be susceptible to corporate kidnapping and things like that.”
Closely related are other sociometric badges. Rather than inserting one into flesh, chips can be placed into employee name badges or access passes to track their location and proximity.
The technology can in some cases go one step further, Gartner insists, allowing conversations to be monitored to detect everything from the level of excitement or stress in an employee’s voice to the duration and frequency of employee interactions.
Given their intrusive nature, it’s no surprise these technologies are less common – used in around 3% of organisations, according to Gartner’s research.
Similarly, facial scanning is an area that “people are right to be alert to”, according to Boomer, but that is frequently used for fairly innocuous purposes.
“In most cases, the application is to be able to let people know when they are showing signs of fatigue, for example. Or if they are utilising heavy or intricate equipment that could create a safety concern, it’s used to make sure that they’re looking at the right things and aware of objects that might be entering their path if they’re driving a forklift, or out on the tarmac,” he said.
“If moving vehicles are coming their way, using things like visors that have sensing capabilities to monitor the eyes, and also external scanning to warn you of potential dangers can be invaluable.”
Email analysis and data scraping
That doesn’t mean desk jockeys are immune, as you certainly don’t have to be a high-flying executive or operating heavy machinery to be monitored.
“Things like text or sentiment analysis are used on the email system [so] that you use may have the ability to pick up information about levels of engagement if people are sharing information outside of the organisation is confidential, or people are potentially doing ethical violations or breaking any laws.
That should come as a particular worry in countries like Australia where the Australian Federal Police (AFP) have indicated that whistleblowers and information leaks in the public sector are not tolerated.
Then there’s data scraping, which is “nine times out of ten” used to check on the allocation of resources, according to Boomer.
“That can be used to see what meetings and meeting rooms are being utilised and that tends to be used in order to understand your real estate profile and check whether we have enough meeting space for our employees for example, or how often are employees actually collaborating with one another and clients.”
Workers are advised to be alert but not alarmed
While the number and invasiveness of methods may be surprising, their objectives are generally benign, Boomer said.
“Workplace surveillance can conjure up a kind of Black Mirror dystopian perspective but largely these technologies are to keep people safe and to give them every opportunity to succeed,” he said.
While upbeat on the technology, Boomer said employees are – and need to be – aware of it every step of the way.
He also acknowledges that it could be used for less altruistic purposes, as regulation always lags behind the innovation.
“There is a wide gap between what is and what could potentially be done with it but we have explicit policies, either within the organisation, or under the jurisdiction that we do business under,” he said. “It’s unlikely that anything is going on in many cases without the knowledge and explicit permission of the staff.”
The concern isn’t the technology, but the application
Like any technology, the tool itself isn’t inherently evil. How it’s used is another story entirely.
“My employer might know I have a young kid and use that information to remind me of some of the company’s family benefits. Or they might not bother allocating me a specific client because they assume that I won’t be able to handle the extra travel hours. Those are two very different propositions,” Boomer said.
It’s incumbent on HR to be able to clearly explain the capabilities of any new feature introduced to a workplace. It’s also vital that employees exercise common sense.
“If you’re using a device that was given to you, or is paid for by the employer, or operates on an employee network, even if they’re not accessing that data today, it’s possible they could one day,” Boomer said.
In a brave new world, you’re right to be cautious.
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.