About 12 years ago, I worked in a large office in Camden Town. It wasn’t a particularly easy time in my life, and, for various reasons, I found myself spending much of the working day firing off angry personal emails and scouring the web – until one day when I arrived at work to discover that my internet access had been suspended.
Up until that point it had never occurred to me that my activities might have been monitored. Shocked and embarrassed by what the IT department might have seen, I knuckled down. Two months later, my lesson learned, they gave me my internet access back.
It was a fair cop. After all, the company had, in effect, been paying me to conduct personal business during working hours. Few of us are under the illusion that the time we spend at work is ours to do with as we please; we’re there to perform tasks in exchange for money and expect some form of monitoring to ensure that we don’t skive.
But in recent times, technology has brought about a shift in the balance between surveillance and employee privacy. Whereas in the past, a switchboard operator might have listened to the beginning of your call to check its purpose, today companies may have filters in place which, for example, flag up the mention of “CV” in an outgoing email.
That shift is set to become more pronounced as intelligent sensors become smaller and more affordable. The announcement of Hitachi’s Business Microscope, “a system that uses sensor technology [embedded within nametags] to analyse company communication and activities” has caused something of a stir recently, as have similar products made by two American companies, Sociometric Solutions and Steelcase. These sensors can detect movement around the workplace, interaction between employees, “body and behaviour rhythms” and much else besides, creating a wealth of workplace data that can then be collated and analysed by companies such as Evolv, which claim to be “redefining workforce optimisation through big data”.
In a recent interview with the Financial Times, Evolv’s co-founder Max Simkoff said, perhaps tellingly th “every week we figure out more things to track.” Soon, your boss may not just be watching you; he may be sensing you, too.
“The danger is that this technology can turn your staff into data points,” Nick Pickles, director of Big Brother Watch, says. “As a manager there may be a clear attraction to having lots of data about how your business and your employees are working, but you may be undermining the very trust you require to maintain a conducive and happy workplace.”
There are good reasons for businesses to employ some level of surveillance, including the protection of business interests, maintaining quality of service, complying with health and safety legislation and so on. The concern that Pickles and other privacy campaigners have is surveillance being extended unnecessarily and becoming a creeping problem. “The likelihood of this technology only being used for the purpose it started out with is nil,” Pickles says. “Winston Churchill got rid of ID cards [in 19852] because at the beginning of the war they were used by four government departments; by the end of the war it was 64.”
The data produced by these sensors is certainly valuable; study and analysis could bring about greater understanding of working patterns and lead to improvements that do indeed make us happier and more fulfilled at work. (Higher productivity being achieved as a consequence of co-workers taking breaks together rather than individually is one of many findings that Sociometric Solutions has uncovered during its work.) But the analysis of hundreds of millions of these personal “data points” by a company such as Evolv could eventually produce data sets that cover the entire career of an individual, following us from job to job and depriving us of the opportunity to creatively airbrush our past within the context of a one-page CV. “Perhaps the most chilling part of this trend,” Pickles says, “is the way management of employees is being delegated to computers.”
There’s disagreement over the effect that workplace monitoring might have on productivity. The famed “Hawthorne Effect”, observed in a Chicago factory in the late 1920s, tells us that people work harder when they’re being studied, then revert to normal when the study has ended. But Hazards, the Sheffield‑based occupational safety and health magazine, claims precisely the opposite on its website – that productivity drops as a result of monitoring.
While it’s clear that workplace rules are less likely to be violated if the monitoring of those violations is stepped up a gear using new technology, it’s possible – as with CCTV – that this only provides a short-term deterrent. The longer-term effect on staff morale may be far more damaging to a business.
There’s also the knotty problem of sensor-generated information being interpreted in unforeseen ways, despite it appearing to be benign and uninteresting. The knowledge, for example, that two colleagues regularly arrive at or depart work together may allow an employer to deduce personal information that they have no right to know. “Employers have to be very careful,” Juliette Franklin, an employment lawyer at Slater & Gordon, says. “A disabled person or someone with an unspecified condition might, say, spend longer in the restroom than others, and you may end up acting in a discriminatory fashion towards them as a result of gathering this rather bizarre information.” The gov.uk website specifically states that employers are “not allowed to monitor workers everywhere (not in the toilet, for example)” but if a camera or sensors are used investigate, say, breaches of smoking rules in those same loos, that’s precisely what can happen as an indirect consequence.
Unfortunately for employees, they will generally have signed employment contracts that permit them to be monitored in this way. “Even when the justification for the surveillance is flimsy employees are increasingly powerless to challenge or stop this intrusion on their privacy,” says Pickles. The only redress for employees, it seems, comes after the fact, when that information ends up being used in a way that affects them adversely. “There are limits to what can be done with the information,” says Franklin. “If it’s felt that it was gathered in an unfair, unlawful or discriminatory manner, it may give rise to a remedy by an employee, or indeed a prospective employee.” But according to Pickles, the only real check on the expansion of surveillance technology is whether you would want to work for a company that treats its employees in such a fashion.
“At the heart of British employment law is the concept of mutual trust and confidence, the idea that the employment relationship is a two-way street where employees and employers treat each other with respect and have confidence in each other,” he says. “The danger is that this technology makes the relationship entirely one way.”
There’s an irony, perhaps, that these sensors are started to be deployed at a time when many companies are finally realising that happy employees are more productive. The effect of sensor technology on individual workers will largely depend on the culture that already exists within their workplace. There have always been bad bosses. But bad bosses with an excessive amount of your personal data could be even worse.