The British multinational financial firm Barclays is using tracking devices at its London headquarters to monitor how much time employees spend at their desks, Bloomberg reported on Friday. The OccupEye devices, made by the UK company Cad-Capture, are designed to let companies analyze traffic patterns in the workplace as a way to identify underused space and figure out how to reduce their overall office footprint:
There was a “phased roll-out” of the devices, and Barclays staff and the Unite union were notified before they were installed, although the bank did not send out a specific memo about them, according to spokesman Tom Hoskin. The Barclays employees said they don’t remember being informed about the boxes, but spokespeople for the bank said there have been no official human-resources complaints. …
“The sensors aren’t monitoring people or their productivity; they are assessing office space usage,” the bank said in an emailed statement. “This sort of analysis helps us to reduce costs, for example, managing energy consumption, or identifying opportunities to further adopt flexible work environments.”
As remote and flexible work options become available, “hot desking,” which eschews assigned desks and allows companies to operate with fewer than one workstation per employee, is becoming increasingly popular among London banks and other companies operating in high-cost areas as a way to save money by reducing the size of their offices. Some proponents of hot desks say they enable greater collaboration, but critics counter that they limit employees’ autonomy and control over their space, while making it more difficult to form workplace relationships because the people they sit next to change from day to day.
As the technological options for monitoring employee activity grow, employers are finding new ways to use these tools to maximize the efficiency of their workplaces, but can walk a tightrope when it comes to doing this without micromanaging or violating employees’ privacy. Research conducted at CEB (now Gartner) last year found that many employees actually don’t mind being monitored by their employers, but substantial minorities do have mixed feelings or consider certain forms of monitoring unacceptable.
While Barclays employees do not appear to have reacted adversely to the introduction of these new monitoring devices, that has not been the case at some other organizations. The UK newspaper the Daily Telegraph courted a strong backlash last year when employees walked into work one day to find OccupEye devices attached to their desks. The mistake the Telegraph made was in not informing employees beforehand that the devices were being installed and why. The reaction was so overwhelmingly negative that the company was quickly forced to backtrack and remove them.
Marianne Calnan at People Management passes along the advice of one expert who says the key to avoiding a negative employee response to new monitoring technology is clear, detailed, proactive communication:
Professor Sir Cary Cooper, president of the CIPD and professor of organisational psychology and health at Manchester Business School, told People Management that companies considering similar moves should “explain to all employees concerned, in great detail, well before the introduction of these sensors why they are doing it. “Poor communication can lead to rumour and misinterpretation of intent.”