Employer

Secrets are lies; sharing is caring; privacy is theft.

Listen carefully, and echoes of the Orwellian hymn can be heard in the modern workplace of electronic staff surveillance.

From deceivingly innocent gadgets hidden under a friendly veil of a perk, to the outright intrusive – advancement in technology has changed the game in staff surveillance, allowing new ways for employers to watch their staff more closely than ever. With such scrutinized eyes monitoring productivity, and opening new frontiers in employee data, questions are raised on the ethical dangers of employee surveillance. Welcome to the modern workplace of 2017… or should that be 1984?

GPS trackers

GPS trackers have been long-established amongst occupational drivers, but with the development of phone apps like Xora, many more companies have adopted this method to monitor the whereabouts of their workers. This is often to keep an eye on their equipment, tracking when workers clock in and out, or to monitor remote workers.

This in itself has a stalkerish nature, but the problem really comes into play once you’ve left work. The downloaded app on your phone will still run after working hours, with some employers requiring a work phone to be on for 24/7 to take client calls. This means employers can track an individual’s every move and know exactly where they are.

Your computer is watching you

Where computer behaviour is a cause for concern, there’s Worksnaps, a software that takes repeated screenshots of a worker’s computer screen, counts their keyboard and mouse clicks, and can capture webcam images. Some may enthuse at its ability to expose the more apathetic workers, but this is outright invasive, and kills any ounce of trust. Worksnaps has even designed a tool to identify cheating as it was found that staff had been using a program that tricked the software into thinking they were working.

Treat employees like they are teenagers, and you will make rebels of them.

Wearable trackers

Approximately 202m wearable devices were handed out by companies in 2016. Popular wearable gadgets like the Fitbit were given out to workers often as part of an “employee wellbeing program”, and whilst the device serves in its intended purpose of promoting health, the seemingly innocuous gadget strapped to the wrist also allows companies to track data on everything from weight, activity, steps, sleep quality and heart rate.

There’s also Humanyze, a “sociometric” badge worn by employees to track physical movements,  record non-linguistic social signs such as excitement and interest, locate wearers and record their interactions with other wearers and electronic devices.

The larger picture is to use this data to improve the workplace by measuring personal biometrics with workplace performance data – assessing sleeping patterns or stress levels for example, against work performance can allow employers to analyse productivity and plan strategy.

Is it right or wrong?

People Analytics:

Be sure that anything involving “People Analytics” will be trawling uncomfortable grounds of private info. There is certain cynicism to this kind of snooping that must be considered, but there is also some credible reasoning that is perhaps less sinister. Whilst blurring the lines between work and personal life with intrusion to one’s privacy is generally unwelcome, there are those willing to advocate the device if it means improving their wellbeing at work.

With that in mind, if sacrificing a part of your privacy for a better workplace is a personal choice that seems a worthwhile deal, then fair do’s, and everyone wins. The question then becomes: how to make a fair system that allows workers to opt in or out? With an even bigger question in guaranteeing the safeguard of personal data.

Whether you believe it threatens ethics or not, there is certainly a threat in security. Rapid innovation in technology has still never outrun the hackers, and employers are clambering to keep up with implementing correct formal guidelines to help manage the use of these gadgets. With so much highly personal data, inevitably this data will be abused, whether by outside sources, hackers, or employers themselves.

As a very basic, employers must comply to data and privacy laws, but employers have an ethical responsibility with how they use personal data, so they should talk to employees to agree a fair and safe structure around it.

All in all, “people analytics” and this micro surveillance for “improvement” feels like a glimpse into a disturbing future of human modifying, where so not to be replaced by robots, we all become robots.

Staff surveillance:

As for checking on your workers to see if they are in fact working?

Surveillance of staff productivity may lull employers into a safe sense of assurance, but if work productivity rests on the fear of close monitoring, then such employers need to ask bigger questions around their management and workforce.

We are often reminded the importance of “workplace culture” and these authoritarian regimes threaten this to its core; removing trust, respect and authenticity from relationships. Instead of concentrating on the negative, and measuring “laziness”, employers should focus on the work that employees do. Surely there is more value in the work one creates than the minutes you take on your break, or how long you spend on Facebook.

No matter your ethical stance control and constant monitoring is an unsettling vision for the future, and ultimately trust, freedom, and privacy must prevail.

About Xuan Minh Hoang

Account Executive at Link Humans, London's employer branding agency.

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