How Companies Use Tech to Track Workers
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For the seven years he’d been a professional trucker, 25-year-old Trevor had let his own common sense drive his actions. But one night last November, he was answering instead to a government-mandated device his employer had installed in his truck—and it nearly ended him.
Trevor, who asked us to use only his first name, was traveling through a small town and keeping to the posted speed limit. As he hit a curve, he knew he should have slowed down sooner, but the electronic logging device (ELD) installed in his truck was ticking away. If he lost time, he’d have to find a truckstop and sleep there instead of at home.
Within seconds, he was nearly a statistic. His truck soared off the road. The twisted wreck of the bed lay behind it, and the lumber it carried was scattered down the highway like popsicle sticks. Miraculously, Trevor walked away with only bruises.
“I was five minutes short on time, and I was trying to make up five minutes so I could see my family, and it almost cost me my life,” he said.
Trevor had been away all week, and he wanted to spend the night at home before he was back on the road the next morning. Racing against time isn’t anything new for truck drivers, but accounting for every minute is. Since 2017, US long-haul drivers are required to be monitored by ELDs that keep track of their location and speed to schedule how they space sleeping and driving.
"If I wanted to be micromanaged, I would have gotten a desk job," Trevor said.
He's not wrong. If you’ve ever wondered whether you measure up at work, employers now have the means to find out. In the same ways that you can monitor how many steps you take in a day and the time you spend looking at your phone, your place of employment can track your productivity, surveil your daily routine, and scrutinize who you spend the most time with at work.
Many employees wouldn’t find it surprising that their computer-based activities are captured by keyloggers and other software, but physical tracking—accomplished with wearable devices like Fitbits, brain-wave-monitoring helmets, and even implanted microchips—could feel like a violation. Moreover, there is an element of turning the human workforce into the robotic one that threatens their livelihoods.
The reality is that signing a job contract can be much like agreeing to the terms and conditions of a phone app: You might not realize what rights you’ve signed away in exchange for the benefits you receive. And the more workplaces that adopt monitoring technologies, the fewer options there are for employees who resent their presence.
Your AI Supervisor Would Like a Word
Though the technology has changed, employee monitoring is nothing new. Measuring employee performance by surveillance was originally left to humans, with later assistance coming from the structure of the workplace itself. In the 18th century, Jeremy Bentham conceived of the Panopticon—an open-plan, circular building that made constant observation its priority—as a way to watch everyone, including the watchers, in prisons, factories, hospitals, and schools.
Though never implemented as Bentham imagined, the Panopticon sparked the ire of philosopher Michael Foucault nearly 200 years later. He viewed the structure of the building as symbolic of the decentralization of power and the danger of granting it to individuals over each other. Panopticism (and hence, its modern-day transformation into technology that monitors employees) trades the “traditional, ritual, costly, violent forms of power,” Foucault said, for a “subtle, calculated technology of subjection.”
The Panopticon’s legacy can be seen in the open-plan offices of today and in workplace monitoring that has become pervasive and invasive in other ways. Swipeable badges have replaced time clocks; software handles jobs previously done by supervisors walking a floor. And at some companies, such as Amazon, an employee’s productivity is no longer measured by people but by artificial intelligence that judges whether or not workers have met quotas and fires them accordingly.
The use of surveillance in the workplace is only accelerating. A May Gartner survey found that nontraditional monitoring techniques (including the tracking of employees’ movements around the office and their biometric data) rose from 30 percent of the 239 large corporations it surveyed in 2015 to 50 percent in 2018. That number is expected to increase to 80 percent in 2020, says Brian Kropp, practice group vice president in human resources at Gartner Inc.
For the most part, the benefits of removing the human element from employee monitoring rest with companies and not with workers themselves; more on that below.
Does Your Boss Need Access to Your Brainwaves?
Government regulations are a necessary good in society. They protect citizens from corporate ills, though they’re criticized by some as creating so-called nanny states. Workplaces aren’t nanny states so much as nanny fiefdoms, where rules for the safety of employees exist to protect them as company assets. So when it comes to monitoring employees, it can be tricky to disentangle safety measures from privacy violations.
For some technologies, the purpose seems clear, as it is with Nokia’s smart jacket: CHASE LifeTech FR jacket, designed for first responders, has swappable modules that monitor the wearer’s heart rate, temperature, motion, and location. But some modules, such as body cams, move beyond safety to also track the completion of tasks and monitor workflow.
It’s the same with SmartCap fatigue monitoring, a hat fitted with EEG monitoring to detect signs of sleepiness in long-haul drivers and other jobs for which being alert is crucial for safety. The LifeBand portion of the SmartCap detects microsleep, a fleeting few moments of sleep that can occur at crucial moments and can be undetectable to the actual sleeper. The SmartCap is in use at the government-run mining industry association New South Wales Minerals Council in Australia and construction and engineering firm BAM Nuttall in the UK.
The SmartCap plays into many of the same fears that truckers in the US have regarding ELDs, with concerns that the technology would force them to live by the rules of a machine rather than their experience and provide their bosses with a full picture of their movements and whether they’re taking scheduled breaks. And since trucks function as homes for drivers, some truckers see being monitored on the job as an invasion of their privacy during off hours. A hat that monitors brainwaves adds to the weight on their shoulders.
In China, workers at Hangzhou Zhongheng Electric, Ningbo Shenyang Logistics, and State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power have been outfitted with hats and helmets that contain sensors to monitor their brainwaves, ostensibly to optimize worker efficiency. “Wireless sensors constantly monitor the wearer’s brainwaves and stream the data to computers that use artificial intelligence algorithms to detect emotional spikes such as depression, anxiety, or rage,” the South China Morning Post reports. State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power touts the savings they’ve seen since issuing the helmets, but their accuracy is still in question.
And given that neuroengineers at Columbia University recently made a breakthrough in translating brain waves to speech, the future of similar devices is disquieting.
It’s All in the Wrist
Workers in China who want non-invasive jobs should probably avoid careers in sanitation. Though their emotions aren’t tracked, their physical movements are. Nanjing West River Environmental Services in Jiangsu province outfitted workers with GPS wristbands that check when they arrive and leave for work and make sure they’re where they’re supposed to be.
It could be worse, and it was—the wristbands had been sending messages that said, “Please continue working, add oil!” to workers who did not move for periods beyond 20 minutes. (“Add oil” is a colloquialism meant as “an encouragement and support to a person.”) Public pushback put a halt to the messages, though not to the monitoring.
In Dublin, warehouse workers and forklift operators at grocery chain Tesco were monitored via Motorola wearable terminals that recorded the speed at which they moved stock and how long they took for bathroom breaks.
That’s an object lesson for Amazon warehouse workers who might soon be sporting even more invasive tech: Two patents for ultrasonic wristbands filed by the company have drawings of a modern-day Vetruvian Man who is fused to his workplace, detailing features such as “activate proximity signal transmitter.” The wristbands can also use haptics to direct workers to shelves.
“Amazon’s employment practices in their warehouses are particularly onerous in terms of how they monitor their employees and the pace at which the employees are expected to work,” says Paula Brantner, an employment lawyer and president and principal of PB Work Solutions; she also spent 18 years at Workplace Fairness, a nonprofit that focuses on employee rights.
Badge of Dishonor
Most monitoring takes place with blue-collar jobs, but one of the most invasive systems is concealed within the badges some white-collar workers sling around their necks every day.
At Deloitte and Bank of America, workers have worn Humanyze badges, which see and hear everything they do. The badges analyze a wearer’s speech through volume and pitch, note who they spend time with, and map the paths of their days. The tracking works via beacons placed throughout the office. We reached out to both companies for comment. A spokesman from Bank of America would not confirm that the company was currently working with Humanyze. And as of this writing, we haven’t received a response from Deloitte.
In its values statement, Humanyze says, “We fight for data privacy,” and that the collected data is aggregated and anonymized. In reality, employees express anxiety at the possibility that their bathroom activities are not private. (Humanyze addresses that concern in its FAQ: “Question: Do we track when employees go to the bathroom? Answer: No, the Humanyze Badge does not track employees in the bathroom.”)
Humanyze CEO and cofounder Ben Waber says the company’s goal is to help organizations design workplaces that are optimized for productivity and engagement but that also benefit the employees themselves. “To do all of this, we look at communication and collaboration data—stripped out of all of its content and anonymized—which includes workplace sensors, calendar, chat and email,” Waber says.
The Humanyze concept came from the MIT Media Lab, which discovered that mining workers for their “metadata” would be more effective at analyzing employee communications than their original idea: to cull that information from recording face-to-face interactions, chat transcripts, and email body and subject lines.
If you can say anything for the Humanyze badge, it’s that it can be easily removed. Which is not the case with microchips.
Chip in the Shoulder
At Three Square Market, a Wisconsin-based vending-machine supplier, over 80 employees had an RFID microchip inserted into their hands—voluntarily. They can use them to swipe into work, sign onto their desktops, and pay for food.
This story has been sunnily depicted, with headlines like “This Company Embeds Microchips In Its Employees, and They Love It” and “Why Most of Three Square Market’s Employees Jumped At the Chance to Wear a Microchip.” Building on its good PR, the company promoted its plans to create a GPS version for dementia patients, among other medical uses.
But the wholesome Midwestern reputation the company presents and its assurances about what the chip does not do become less convincing when the true source of its business is known. Despite the depictions of salad-friendly offices on its website, Three Square Market makes its money from marking up products considerably to take advantage of the incarcerated and their families.
Its related company, TurnKey Corrections, manages a multistate technology operation that provides services such as video visitation, which replaces in-person visits for families and other visitors and charges them exorbitant fees to chat via video terminal. Implanting a chip that comes from a company that’s deeply embedded in the prison-industrial complex could lead to surveillance that goes far beyond the scope of the Panopticon.
Microchipping employees isn’t limited to the United States. The UK’s BioTeq and Sweden’s Biohax have been implanting employees with chips in the finance and engineering industries. BioTeq bills itself as “the UK’s leading human technology implant specialists” and supplies both RFID and NFC microchips. The company’s site lists features for the microchips that include office entry, contactless payment, and under a section called “Bespoke Solutions,” tracking systems. And Biohax is in use at companies in the UK and Europe as well as the United States—it’s the chip behind Three Square Market’s initiative. It’s even been adopted by Swedes in their private lives
Because it’s embedded under your skin, a microchip is an unobtrusive and easily forgotten monitor. In those aspects, it’s not alone. Ambient monitors that use Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa listen in on employees like an invisible, intrusive coworker. You won’t necessarily see them around the office, but they could still be there.
Siri now works with Salesforce to remind employees about meetings and quotas while monitoring their speech. Given that iOS puts the platform in pockets, the boundaries of the workplace and observing what’s said there could extend to wherever the employee might be.
Alexa for Business blends shared devices in conference rooms, copy rooms, lobbies, and other common office spaces with personal devices that sit on desks or in the homes of employees.
Walmart has patented a system that spies on both customers and employees in stores: In its patent application, the company said, “A need exists for ways to capture the sounds resulting from people in the shopping facility and determine performance of employees based on those sounds.”
The End of the Law
The measure of ease employees have with the Internet of Things may correspond to the sense of inevitability they have about monitoring. Gartner’s Kropp says that in 2018, 30 percent of employees said they were comfortable with their company “tracking personal data” about them; compared with just 10 percent several years ago. Combine that with the fact that employment contracts generally provide considerable latitude for companies to watch workers. Whether or not they are comfortable with it, employees will likely have to get used to it.
“I honestly think the battle has been lost,” PB Work Solutions’ Brantner says. “Employers have a lot of leeway and not many legal limitations. And also, it seems employees are in some ways just used to being monitored… [They] personally sign up for monitoring, using what a Fitbit does or what your Alexa does or what your webcam can do.”
Brantner does not foresee a change in direction for monitoring in workplaces. “It would definitely take some changes in both the political landscape and a groundswell of support from the public, and I just don’t see those happening anytime soon.”
She also points out that there aren’t any federal laws protecting employee privacy, although at a state level, legislatures in Arkansas, California, Maryland, Missouri, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin have passed some laws regulating microchip implantation in employees. That’s not to say that any of those states ban the use of microchips. Arkansas Rep. Stephen Meeks, who sponsored that state's bill, told the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that an outright ban could be struck down by the courts. His legislation specifies that the law “does not prohibit an employer from using alternative non-invasive technology that is intended to track the movement of an employee.”
Humanyze’s Waber says, “People want to—and deserve to—have ownership over their data, which is why in the workplace, it’s the responsibility of employers to ensure consent practices and educate employees on what data is or is not being collected.” Waber says he would like to see worldwide adoption of laws similar to Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, though such laws don’t prevent employees from being monitored, just from data being directly tied to individuals.
The Bottom Line
The motivation a company has for doing something almost always comes down to its bottom line. Monitoring is no different; an employer is either looking to protect assets or to increase revenue.
But the potential exists for monitoring to be at least partially beneficial to workers. Gartner’s Kropp says that he believes monitoring will go beyond observation and toward nudging. Aside from it being used to push employees to work harder (“add oil!”), it could function much like a Fitbit: “For instance, the idea that data will register from your desk chair and your computer will prompt you, after an hour of sitting, to get up and take a walk,” Kropp says.
Brantner says the Amazon wristbands could be used to minimize the amount of hard physical labor and punishing hours workers in the warehouses are subject to, but she hasn’t seen any sign that the company is inclined to use them in that way. “Whether these companies are using these technologies to benefit their workers as opposed to squeezing more productivity out of them, we’re just not seeing it,” Brantner says.
Whatever benefits there are to employee monitoring (decrease in theft, easy evaluation of efficiency, supervising safety), the cost is sometimes greater than that of the technology itself. The surveillance can be counterproductive, limiting employee output and seriously inhibiting creativity. The presence of creative coworkers spreads workplace creativity, as long as supervisors do not monitor employees too closely, according to research from Rice University's Jones Graduate School of Management. And findings from the Tasmanian School of Business and Economics indicate that just the presence of electronic surveillance can lead employees to lash out with counterproductive behavior.
Employees who are monitored can feel uneasy and stressed in the workplace and experience a subsequent negative effect on their mental and physical well-being. Monitoring inherently engenders a feeling of distrust between employee and employer, resulting in problems with retention, though Kropp points out, “When companies are transparent about the information they are collecting and why they want it, nearly half of employees are generally OK with it.”
Still, surveillance can be demoralizing and dehumanizing. No matter the industry, workers fear that robots are standing by to replace them. Until then, a cyborg army straps on badges that monitor speech and slips their feet into boots that track location.