Everything You Need to Know About Sensors in the Workplace

It’s been a few years since software began giving managers the ability to monitor what their employees were doing on their computers. But as of late, a new kind of sensor is finding its way into mainstream acceptance: the ones that measure employees’ actions away from their desks.

From movement sensors to tracking devices in ID cards, there are plenty of ways for employers to know what their team is doing at all times. And while there are benefits to this information gathering, there’s also a whole new world of challenges.

Here’s what you need to know about sensors in the workplace.

They’re good and bad (duh.)

When we hear the phrase “sensors in the workplace,” our initial reaction tends to be negative. After all, the idea that Big Brother is watching us isn’t exactly a productivity booster.

Part of our leeriness toward this technology stems from the potential to misuse it. Monitoring your employees’ every move to curb perceived slacking will only undermine office morale as it fights against the current of human nature.

Cracking down on activities that seem unproductive on the surface can also be detrimental to your business as a whole; there’s a tendency to equate sitting at a computer with being productive, but the time workers spend away from the screen is crucial to team-building, the cross-pollination of ideas, and avoiding burnout.

But on the positive side, sensors can offer managers valuable analysis that yields insights unobtainable by other methods. These bottom-up insights take the ways people work (rather than productivity benchmarks) as the starting point, on the belief that understanding more about office dynamics can help people to work better.

For example, a study by Stephen Turban, Laura Freeman, and Ben Waber, detailed in the Harvard Business Review, set out to discover why men and women had such different experiences at work. The authors explain:

“We collected email communication and meeting schedule data for hundreds of employees in one office, across all levels of seniority, over the course of four months. We then gave 100 of these individuals sociometric badges, which allowed us to track in-person behavior. These badges, which look like large ID badges and are worn by all employees, record communication patterns using sensors that measure movement, proximity to other badges, and speech (volume and tone of voice but not content). They can tell us who talks with whom, where people communicate, and who dominates conversations.”

The theory was that differences in behaviour, and access to mentors and managers, might at least partly explain things like the wage gap and the under-representation of women in higher management.

But what the sensors revealed smashed their expectations. They instead found no perceptible difference in these metrics, confirming that the issue was bias alone, and not systematic differences in the way men and women acted on the job.

Knowing this sheds valuable light on the kinds of measures that will and won’t fix the problem, and lets companies address them more effectively — prime example of the benefits sensors can offer.

Transparency is crucial to getting employees on board

There are privacy concerns, of course, but the laws surrounding the surveillance of employees, at least while they’re on the clock, are quite lax.

In the US, employers are legally permitted to monitor just about anything an employee does at work, excepting only bathroom-related activities (penalizing an employee for anything bathroom-related, including how often or how long they visit, is always inadvisable).

In Canada, laws concerning worker surveillance are hazier. But in general, the more open you are about how you’re monitoring employees’ actions at work or in public, the firmer your legal standing.

There has been pushback from workers in cases where the employer moved too quickly – especially where transparency was lacking. In a widely reported story from last year, reporters at the London headquarters of the Daily Telegraph showed up one morning to find black boxes installed at their desks. Management explained that the sensors were being used only to monitor which desks were occupied (a move to reduce energy costs, they said) but the damage was done. The reporters’ union complained, and the sensors were removed.

The company behind the sensors, UK-based manufacturer OccupEye, found itself experiencing déjà vu last August when Barclays of London installed sensors on bankers’ desks (again, as a way to monitor which were occupied). Even though employees were – somewhat – notified in advance, the sudden appearance of the sensors still resulted in a flurry of privacy-related concerns directed at managers.

These new stories have served as a cautionary tale. In both cases, a lack of transparency led to immediate feelings of suspicion from employees. Communication about what the data will be used for is key: when language like “spying on” pops up early in the conversation, the negative connotations can be next to impossible to dispel.

The technology (and intel) is becoming increasingly sophisticated

As sensors in the workplace enter the mainstream, the insight they can yield is growing more and more sophisticated.

In a recent Bloomberg article, Joe Costello of sensor manufacturer Enlighted said that 15 per cent of Fortune 500 companies are his using sensors. “They’re hidden in lights, ID badges, and elsewhere,” says the article.

Standard ID badges, for example, can now incorporate Bluetooth, microphones, motion sensors, and infrared beams and receivers to uncover all sorts of data.

More basic information includes how long individual employees spend sitting or moving around, and whom they meet with during the day. But these sensors can also tell how much time employees spend talking versus listening during interactions, and even their tone of voice, talking speed, and body language.

To skirt privacy concerns, these sensors only record the kind of information that would be available to an observant manager – and the recorded data is anonymized before final reports are send to employers.

It’s all about the bigger picture

As surveillance technology improves, employers are able to keep a closer watch on their workers than ever before, but does more oversight always lead to higher productivity?

The answer lies more in how the information is used – and how the technology is rolled out – than in the amount of information gathered.

Interpretation of sensor data (the art of sociometrics), is typically performed by consultants and designers in longitudinal studies, rather than instituted as an everyday way to monitor individual workers.

In other words, sensors shouldn’t be seen as a way to crack down on workers who goof off – or for targeting individual workers at all.

Instead, by following a transparent process that scrutinizes trends rather than individual productivity, managers can use sensor data to challenge their assumptions and remove obstacles to better overall performance over the long term.

Published by Workopolis

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