Study: Open Offices Shut Down Face-to-Face Communication

Study: Open Offices Shut Down Face-to-Face Communication

In a paper published last week, Harvard Business School professor Ethan Bernstein and co-author Stephen Turban set out to measure the impact of open offices on how employees communicate in the workplace, using sociometric devices to track employee interactions at Fortune 500 companies that were transitioning to open office plans. Quartz’s Lila MacLellan explains their counterintuitive findings:

In two studies, the researchers found that conversations by email and instant messaging (IM) increased significantly after the office redesign, while productivity declined, and, for most people, face-to-face interaction decreased. Participants in the first study spent 72% less time interacting in person in the open space. Before the renovation, employees had met face to face for nearly 5.8 hours per person over three weeks. In the after picture, the same people held face-to-face conversations for only about 1.7 hours per person.

These employees were emailing and IM-ing much more often, however, sending 56% more email messages to other participants in the study. This is how employees sought the privacy that their cubicle walls once provided, the authors reason. IM messages soared, both in terms of messages sent and total word count, by 67% and 75%, respectively.

Bernstein’s paper adds to the growing body of research questioning the value of open-plan offices, which came into vogue in the US over the past decade as part of an effort to make the office environment more interactive and collaborative. Critiques of the practice usually focus on the distractions and lack of privacy an open office provides; the proliferation of open offices in the US has even been suggested as a possible factor contributing to the spread of the flu virus in American workplaces during winter.

Other research, like Bernstein’s, has found that open offices don’t improve employee communication as advertised, and can even have the opposite effect. A major study in Australia in 2016, for example, found that workers in open offices form poorer relationships with their colleagues and managers, making fewer friends at work and seeing their supervisors less supportive.

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European Rights Court Strikes Another Blow Against Employee Surveillance

European Rights Court Strikes Another Blow Against Employee Surveillance

The European Court of Human Rights has found that covertly videotaping an employee at their workplace constitutes an intrusion into their private life in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights. In a decision handed down on January 9, the court ruled in favor of five former employees of a supermarket chain in Spain, who were fired after their employer caught them engaging in or facilitating theft, based on evidence from surveillance cameras that had been installed without the employees’ knowledge, Dentons attorney Claire Maclean explains at Lexology:

The employees challenged their dismissals before the Spanish courts, arguing that the use of covert video surveillance in the workplace without prior notice was unlawful. These challenges were unsuccessful so they raised proceedings before the ECHR alleging that the covert video surveillance violated their right to privacy protected by Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The court held that the installation of the covert cameras had not complied with the Spanish legislation on data protection. The Spanish Data Protection Agency had issued an instruction clarifying that anyone using video surveillance had to place a distinctive sign indicating the areas that were under surveillance.

The court ordered Spain to pay each of the applicants 4,000 euros in respect of non-pecuniary damage, plus court costs, but rejected the applicants’ claim that they were entitled to pecuniary damages for the wages they would have earned had the Spanish courts declared their dismissals unfair and reinstated their employment at the supermarket.

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European Rights Court Limits Monitoring of Employee Communications

European Rights Court Limits Monitoring of Employee Communications

In a landmark ruling on Tuesday, the European Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of a Romanian man who was fired in 2007 after his employer determined that he had violated its policy barring the use of company resources for personal matters. Bogdan Barbulescu had created a Yahoo Messenger account for work purposes, and was terminated after his managers looked at transcripts of his chats on the application and saw that he had used it for personal communications. Romanian courts had ruled against Barbulescu, and the EHCR had agreed with those courts in January 2016, finding that the employer was justified in reading his personal chat logs in order to enforce its policy.

According to the New York Times, the 2016 decision courted controversy in Europe, where privacy is seen as a fundamental right. On Tuesday, the ECHR’s highest appellate division, the Grand Chamber, reversed the court’s position and found that Barbulescu’s privacy had been violated as he had “not been informed in advance of the extent and nature of his employer’s monitoring, or the possibility that the employer might have access to the actual contents of his messages”:

It said that only a few countries in Europe — Austria, Britain, Finland, Luxembourg, Portugal and Slovakia — have explicitly regulated the issue of workplace privacy through domestic legislation. Most countries in the region do, however, require employers to give prior notice of monitoring. In countries like Denmark, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden, employers may monitor emails marked by employees as “private,” but may not look at the content without permission.

The chamber ruled that countries should ensure that companies’ efforts to monitor employees’ communications, are “accompanied by adequate and sufficient safeguards against abuse.”

The court’s ruling is applicable in all 47 member states of the Council of Europe, including non-EU members Russia, Ukraine, and Turkey—in other words, every country on the European continent except Belarus and Kosovo. Following this decision, employers in the court’s jurisdiction are still allowed to monitor their employees’ digital communications, but not without limits, and not without making employees aware of that monitoring beforehand. TechCrunch’s Natasha Lomas outlines the criteria the court created for determining whether monitoring is valid:

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Barclays London Installs Sensors to Track Employee Desk Usage

Barclays London Installs Sensors to Track Employee Desk Usage

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.

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Mattress Maker Pays Employees to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

Mattress Maker Pays Employees to Get a Good Night’s Sleep

The online mattress manufacturer Casper is one of many companies experimenting with new ways to encourage employees to live healthier lives, in this case by monitoring their exercise and sleep habits and rewarding those who work out and get to bed on time. Leah Fessler profiles the company’s wellness incentive program at Quartz:

Casper co-founder Neil Parikh explains that employees track their exercise and sleep via IncentFit, a fitness-reward app designed for company use. They use the app to “check in” at their desired gym or fitness facility. (Location-based algorithms ensure that you really are at SoulCycle, not on your couch.) IncentFit also rewards running, walking, or biking milage tracked via fitness apps or devices like Fitbit.

Payment is distributed monthly: $20 per fitness facility/class visit, $0.20 per mile walked, $4 per mile ran, $2 per mile biked, and $50 per race completed. The startup has also extended the benefit to rest, encouraging employees to track nightly sleep via IncentFit for $2 per night. Through IncentFit, Casper employees can earn a monthly maximum of $130 for exercise and $60 for sleep—a $190 cap set by Casper’s leadership.

Parikh says the program is entirely voluntary and is designed to motivate healthy behaviors on the part of employees, but the question that always comes up with programs that use fitness trackers to monitor employees’ activities outside of work is one of privacy. IncentFit’s privacy policy stresses that it does not share personal identifiable information with users’ employers, “except as necessary to provide you the functionality of the Service,” without the user’s explicit permission—but does not go into detail as to what information it considers necessary to share.

“[A]s an employee, I’d be very nervous about this benefit, particularly who has access to sensitive exercise and sleep data,” organizational psychologist Liane Davey tells Fessler:

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Swedish Startup Hub Experiments with ‘Microchipping’ Employees

Swedish Startup Hub Experiments with ‘Microchipping’ Employees

The notion of implanting microchips in your employees’ bodies may sound like the stuff of dystopian science fiction, but in this instance, science fiction has already become science fact. The Associated Press’s James Brooks looks in on the Swedish startup incubator Epicenter, where employees are lining up to become “cyborgs” voluntarily:

The company offers to implant its workers and startup members with microchips the size of grains of rice that function as swipe cards: to open doors, operate printers, or buy smoothies with a wave of the hand. The injections have become so popular that workers at Epicenter hold parties for those willing to get implanted. …

Epicenter, which is home to more than 100 companies and some 2,000 workers, began implanting workers in January 2015. Now, about 150 workers have them. A company based in Belgium also offers its employees such implants, and there are isolated cases around the world where tech enthusiasts have tried this out in recent years.

In February, Digital Trends‘ Dyllan Furness noted that microchips were just one of the ways the incubator’s members have tried to lean into the future:

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Is Exempting Wellness Programs from GINA a Good Idea?

Is Exempting Wellness Programs from GINA a Good Idea?

The US House Republican leadership’s plan to exempt workplace wellness programs from the genetic privacy protections of the 2008 Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act (GINA) would dramatically expand organizations’ power to compel employees to share their health data with their employer. Nonetheless, Quizzify co-founder Al Lewis makes the case against exercising that power at the Harvard Business Review, arguing that trying to collect this kind of personal information about employees would be expensive:

Is there any evidence that genetic testing is effective in doubling the effectiveness of wellness programs (i.e., in improving health or reducing costs)? There is ample evidence of ineffectiveness. An Aetna study showed no meaningful change in risk factors after one year between at-risk groups that were or were not offered genetic testing, using the standard randomized control trial. Experts in the field have not endorsed the notion that genetic testing for chronic disease predisposition is effective, though that could change as the technology improves.

Accordingly, Lewis argues, the only way employers can really save money with genetic testing is “by relying on employees who resent the testing’s intrusiveness to refuse to comply”:

One vendor advertised noncompliance as a source of savings even without genetic testing. … It would be more common for employers to switch to offering a high-deductible plan that increases the annual deductible by, say, $1,000, but prevent it from looking like a pay cut by offering employees the chance to earn the $1,000 back by participating in the wellness program. On paper, that is an “incentive.” If an employee were to forgo genetic testing, they would not collect the incentive but would still have the higher deductible. …

Given the cost, lack of effectiveness, and likely employee reaction, why would an employer want to do this? In my opinion, they wouldn’t.

If GINA protections are withdrawn for employees participating in wellness programs and employers do choose to start collecting this information, Gizmodo’s Kristen Brown worries the information could be abused:

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