Using Sensors to Improve Office Space—Without Looking Like Big Brother

In George Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother—the leader of Orwell’s fictional totalitarian state—is always watching.
In real-world 2019, with sensors seemingly everywhere—including the workplace—it can be hard for employees to ignore the possibility that they could be subjected to a similar level of surveillance.
Unlike in 1984, however, where the purpose of the technology actually was to keep tabs on Big Brother’s citizens, many of the sensors available today have a much more benign intent: to help business owners address environmental and space management concerns. Consider the faucets in public bathrooms that turn on automatically—no need to touch the germy surface. A sensor knows someone is there when a hand is waved nearby—but learns nothing else about the person.
When sensors have a clearly defined, limited purpose, and don’t uncover much in the way of personal information, they are significantly less frightening. And, used responsibly, more and more are being given roles in developing and improving commercial real estate.
Long associated with energy efficiency—such as automatically turning lights on and off when someone enters or leaves a room—sensor technology has now advanced to the point that it can be used to increase other aspects of facility efficiency, tracking the location of employees within an office building and assessing employee work patterns.
But as we all know, with great power comes great responsibility. Given the advanced sensor technology now available, how can a company use such technology to enhance its office space without making employees feel like they are under a microscope?
(1) Determine if the benefits of the technology outweigh potential employee concerns.
Within the realm of workplace sensors, some seem to offer clear-cut benefits without implicating privacy issues. Automated lighting and temperature controls, for example, can significantly reduce company energy usage and facilities costs. These sensors also have only minimal effect on employee privacy—they identify that someone is in the room, but not who that person is. At a time when it is increasingly important that companies adopt environmentally friendly measures, sensors like these, which also offer long-term cost-saving benefits, seem to quite clearly add value.
Occupancy sensors, which monitor employees’ use of individual desks or conference rooms, can also be valuable, allowing businesses to obtain accurate, real-time space utilization data to determine how to best use office space—or even how to schedule cleaning and maintenance. These sensors are sometimes used temporarily—perhaps in advance of an office renovation to help decide how to restructure the space—but often on a more permanent basis, to track unassigned open desks and conference rooms so unoccupied spaces can be used by others for increased collaboration and productivity.
As with lighting and temperature sensors, occupancy sensors do not identify an individual, but instead recognize when someone—anyone—is occupying the space. It can feel more personal, though, in situations where one employee is the primary worker to use a particular desk: that person may feel that the company is monitoring him or her specifically. In such a case, the employer will need to determine if the benefits of occupancy monitoring outweigh the concerns raised by the employee.
(2) Don’t be any more invasive than you have to be.
There’s a wide variety of technology out there—from the environmental and occupancy sensors discussed above to employee ID badges that track “everything from movements and interactions around the office, to lengths of conversations, and even voice tone.” If your company is simply trying to make efficient use of desk space, it does not also need to monitor employee voice tone. Don’t add all the monitoring bells and whistles unless you have a clear and demonstrable need for them.
(3) For goodness sake, be transparent. Talk to your employees.
You might think this last—and most important—tip would go without saying, but like many other issues that employers worry might be controversial, the use of employee monitoring is often not dealt with head-on.
Just a few years ago, workplace sensors made the news when a UK newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, added a sensor device to the desks of journalists without disclosing the addition. The device, which picks up on motion and body heat, was intended to track when employees were at their desks—allegedly to identify times of low usage to help reduce energy costs. The journalists noticed the devices and broke the story (after which, The Telegraph removed the sensors almost immediately).
Could all the controversy have been avoided if Daily Telegraph management had simply sat down with the journalists in advance and told them what was being planned?
Maybe. Maybe the journalists, if they’d had the situation respectfully explained in reasonable terms, would have decided there were some benefits to the sensors and agreed to their installation.
Or maybe not. They might instead have suggested a compromise involving a less intrusive technology, or a shorter duration of monitoring time. Or perhaps they would have objected strenuously right from the start. It may have been an uncomfortable conversation, but it wouldn’t have broken employee trust. Or made headlines.
Sending out a memo trying to explain your intent after you’ve already taken action—as the Telegraph did—is never as effective as discussing the matter with employees ahead of time. If your company decides to use sensors to increase office efficiency, be transparent about it. Talk to your employees. Explain what information is being gathered, why the information is important, and how the employees can benefit. Talk with them about how the data will be used. As much as possible, come to an agreement on terms.
Because unlike Big Brother, the only thing your company is actually watching is its bottom line.

Written by: Kim Pierson
for CoeoSpace

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