Has your boss noticed you haven’t typed a single letter in the last 17 minutes?
Do they know you’ve been watching a YouTube playlist dedicated to how different types of biscuit are made?
For most of us, the extent of workplace supervision is a peripheral glance at your computer screen, a timecard stamped at the start and end of our days and occasional micromanagement inquiring after your use of time.
But managers are already capable of tracking a lot more. As technology develops and becomes more widely accepted, your boss might be tracking everything from your health and wellbeing to the cold, hard numbers of how much value you bring to the company.
Half of all large corporations use monitoring techniques including analysing emails and social media messages alongside looking at genetic data, research firm Gartner found. It expects that figure to rise to 80% by 2020, up from 30% back in 2015.
Employee tracking is becoming the norm. Is that something you’re comfortable with?
Is it something we should be comfortable with? If not, what rights do we have to say no to our productivity being tracked to the tiniest detail?
‘Employers can track employees’ whereabouts by ID badges with RFID tags (like in contactless debit cards),’ futurist Richard Worzel tells Metro.co.uk.
‘This will allow employers to track where employees are, for how long, infer things about what they are doing and what percentage of the time they are working.
‘Something similar can be done by asking employees to include a company app on their smartphones that would track where they are, how much they are moving about, how long they are still then make inferences about their activity from that. All of this is possible right now.
‘Now add artificial intelligence to the mix. AI on a worker’s smartphone will be able to start inferring things directly from activity levels and, if the company asks workers to put their smartphones out in the open, say on their desks, it may be able to watch as they work.
‘Taking this a step further, if there is a video eye watching each worker (which is not that expensive), much more concrete and direct assessments of worker productivity can be made, especially if it is combined with assessments of the work each employee has done every day. From that kind of detailed tracking, AI can learn how to assess productivity from minute-to-minute.
‘All of this is probably legal (depending on the jurisdiction), but somewhat scary, and frankly a bit nauseating.
’ In the UK, employers are legally allowed to monitor which websites you look at while at work and using devices provided by the workplace, meaning they are legally able to know if you’re spending time on sites that aren’t deemed productive, such as Facebook.
They can also using tracking technology to monitor how long you’re spending on different sites, and the speed at which you press your keyboard. If, for example, you do work that involves data entry or typing, your boss can track your keystrokes to assess how much of this work is being done in a set amount of time.
They can then flag up issues they spot with productivity, such as time with minimal keystrokes or excess time spent on your personal email instead of your work one.
(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)
When keystrokes are monitored, it’s not just your speed of typing that can be tracked, but what you’re typing. Yes, even if you’re typing something in your private messages. Employers are allowed and able to read your emails and Slack messages.
Slack announced that premium customers are able to access employees’ private messages without notifying them.
There’s technology to make this data more focused, allowing managers to easily assess exactly how productive each worker is being moment by moment.
WorkSmart, a calendar management and productivity tool, measures exactly how long it takes individuals to reach set deadlines and team targets with feedback on the percentage of time spent on each type of activity, counting every second when there is computer activity.
The software also tracks time spent in deep work, time spent focused on one task with no distractions or task-switching. If a worker is regularly swapping between different windows, even for a brief moment, their boss can see that and ‘take corrective action to address any blockages’.
Humanyze offers a similar service, tracking the time stamps of emails and how communication flows through an organisation to, as a spokesperson tells us, help companies ‘make faster, informed decisions that will have a direct impact on their business processes and revenue’ and ‘visualise potential bottlenecks and communications gaps eliminating slow decision making, performance lags, confusion, and disorganisation.
’ Rather than tracking actual workers OccupEye works to make physical space as optimised as possible. It uses heat sensor technology to provide real-time data on whether desks and seats are currently occupied.
The idea is that if certain desks aren’t in use for hours a day they can be given another purpose. It also allows workers to see if a meeting area is in use or where there are available desks in the building.
But it could also be used to see exactly how much time each worker is spending at their desk focused on work and how much time is spent going to the loo, leaving the office for lunch, and so on.
Neil Steele, the divisional vice president of sales at OccupEye, says that this sort of employee tracking ‘is not the intended purpose of OccupEye’, and tells Metro.co.uk that the company has ‘never heard of any organisation using the technology to monitor individual time at the workspace’.
When Daily Telegraph journalists arrived at work to find OccupEye sensors attached to their desks, they instantly worried that these would be used to track whether they were really working at their desks – a concern quickly allayed by the Telegraph by a memo before they removed the sensors entirely.
Employers would be in their rights to use the tech in that way, however – they would just need to make clear to employees that they were being tracked.
If tracking time spent on work isn’t too alarming, what if your boss started to track your emotions, your physical health and your thoughts about the working environment?
Right now the tech might be in its infancy, but as it develops and becomes more accessible, it’s possible that by 2050 all companies will have access to all this data and more.
Emotient and Affectiva are both types of human perception AI, using facial recognition tech to detect emotions, thoughts, and behaviours.
They’re currently used for advertising and market research, detecting consumers’ responses to products and content in controlled settings to assess success.
Testers can be shown an advert while being tracked using human perception AI. If they show physical markers of boredom – a drop in body temperature, a neutral face, slow breathing – the advert needs to be tweaked.
If their breathing speeds up, their heart rate quickens, their skin heats, and their eyes ever so slightly widen, there’s an emotion being provoked. Is it being provoked strongly enough to spur purchase? Is it at the intended moment in the advert?
These are all questions the creator of the advert can look at before adjusting the advert to be the precise emotion induction it needs.
The future could see employers making use of this same AI, tracking employees’ emotions to assess exactly how engaged they are with work as well as checking in on their mental wellbeing.
Live updates could instantly notify managers if an employee is feeling stress and needs additional support. But they could also alert bosses to a worker who’s often distracted or disillusioned with the workplace, looking off screen, sighing, or tensing their entire body as if in preparation to fight.
Then there are the trackers that can assess physical health and wellbeing.
Just as you wear might wear a Fitbit when running and keep your phone under your pillow to track your sleep, soon employers may request that you wear a monitoring device in the workplace.
This could offer everyday self-motivated feedback, such as a vibration when your posture isn’t quite right or you need to get up and walk around.
This type of tracking can be useful in emergency situations such as someone operating heavy machinery about to enter cardiac arrest. The device could shut down the power and alert emergency services.
Close monitoring of an employee’s health could allow bosses to spot issues before they arise and get medical intervention more quickly. A wristband that detects fatigue could flag to bosses that someone’s working hours aren’t working for them, or that something else is going on that’s disrupting their sleep.
It could also allow employers to know when someone is on their period or even know they are pregnant before the employee themselves does.
Issues arise with what exactly managers will do with that data. A lot of this depends on how companies value workers.
Imagine you’re a manager, presented with data to suggest an employee is barely putting any effort into work and seems bored, miserable and disengaged.
(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)
Do you think their value lies more in how often their fingers hit their keyboard and look at other factors? Do you invest in mental health care or chat with them about what’s going wrong? Or do you dismiss someone who clearly doesn’t want to be there and hire someone else instead?
You have two employees keen for a promotion, both equally qualified. Thanks to health tracking data, you know that one employee is in the early stages of pregnancy. Will you let that influence your decision?
These are difficult questions to answer but this conversation becomes more essential as more work processes become automated.
With AI automation arriving swiftly into workplaces, the ‘value’ of the human workforce has comes into question.
Is it realistic to monitor employees for the same things that automated programmes are being monitored for? There are some measures of productivity in which automation will always win.
‘Computers are very good at certain kinds of tasks – repetitiveness, deep analysis of multi-variant problems, high precision,’ Richard says.
‘Employees are very good at other kinds: judgment, unexpected problems, complex problems in the real world and, most of all, common sense.’
Of course, these questions are only relevant as long as your boss is a human.
Over at Amazon’s fulfillment centres, an automated tracking process not only assesses the rates of each individual worker’s productivity, but can also generate warnings and terminations dependent on this data. Amazon says supervisors are able to override the process.
What is tracking your workforce meant to achieve anyway?
There’s conflicting research on whether the knowledge of being tracked will increase productivity in itself.
In one study conducted at Washington University, researchers monitored staff working at around 400 restaurants – all with their knowledge. They found that alongside a reduction in employee theft, revenue also grew by $2,975 (£2,300) a week per location, along with employee’s tips.
Lead researcher Andrew McAfee suggested that ‘performance improved simply because people started doing their jobs better’, all due to the knowledge that they were being watched.
Other studies, however, point to tracking causing an increase in stress and lower job satisfaction.
Emma Donaldson-Feilder, director at Affinity Health at Work, tells Metro.co.uk that ‘being monitored can lead to a sense of having less control over our work’ with a long term impact on health.
‘Greater intensity of performance monitoring may have a negative effect on wellbeing,’ she says.
Futurist Melissa Sterry predicts significant backlash from employees at the prospect of being tracked, and notes that any productivity gained by monitoring could be lost as a result of employees finding ways to ‘game the system’.
Rather than improving their work and deleting bad habits, workers could dedicate more time and effort to keeping unproductive time under wraps – whether that’s using a new messaging system to gossip during work hours or sticking their movement tracker on a more active coworker.
There are also privacy concerns.
(Picture: Ella Byworth for Metro.co.uk)
With access to swathes of employee personal data, employers will have to accept a duty of care that includes ensuring information isn’t shared more widely.
Emotion tracking intended to be used to monitor employee mental health and lower stress could be used by advertisers for emotion-targeted campaigns.
Human perception AI reveals a particular worker feels rundown at around 3pm every day, for example, and longs for comfort, so at 3pm an advertiser filters through opportunities to buy cosy blankets or a nice cup of hot chocolate.
There’s an immense level of trust required in companies; trust that they will use the data for constructive purposes and that they will keep it safe from outside parties.
‘We find ourselves in the situation where many have “all the gear” but no idea of the unintended consequences,’ says Melissa Sterry.
‘In an ideal world, one where none had intent to take advantage or harm another, such technologies could, perhaps help build a happier and healthier workforce.
‘However, an ideal world this is not, and for all they that seek to use technologies responsibly there will be invariably they that do not, and that could use it to disadvantage their employees.’
Melissa argues that right at this moment, just as tracking technology is becoming more prevalent, we urgently need government involvement to ensure that information is safely acquired and held, and only for genuinely helpful purpose.
Before employers begin tracking their workers, they need to establish what exactly ‘good’ work means to them, and at what point they would overrule an algorithm in favour of moral rights or wrongs.