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Last week we discussed 32M, a Wisconsin based firm who are encouraging employees to have RFID chips implanted in their hands for enhanced purchasing and access control. This kind of development is just the latest part of the ongoing trend to add sensors and connected technology to every element of our increasingly smart workplaces.

“Chipping employees is, perhaps, simply a next step in the technology’s advancement in streamlining efficiencies according to workplace needs, behaviors and tendencies without the hassle of haggling with a digital device. Talk about taking a company’s workplace strategy to the next level,” says Scott Spector, columnist for the Commercial Observer.

In the same way an office building may monitor the coffee machine and the elevator in order to track functionality and preempt maintenance, an implant and employee monitoring sensors could be used for similar purposes. When an employee’s productivity dips, all the information on that employee and the office environment could be aggregated to determine the reasons for the decline in productivity and provide solutions to rectify the problem.

This workplace evolution raises a number of issues, not least privacy. However, is this a fundamental change or are we just applying technology to improve a function that already exists in the office environment?

Your boss, and even your colleagues, will “track” your movement around the office. They will “log” the time you arrive to work, how long your lunch break is and when you leave. They will “monitor” how stressed or relaxed you look and then judge their actions towards you based on their “analysis” of the aggregated data collected.

The human brain may resemble a computer in many ways but it cannot escape the illogical elements that the assessor’s emotion and personality brings. If your boss or coworker is having a rough and busy day, jealousy might lead them to perceive your 45 minute lunch break as much longer. Non-smokers may resent smokers for all the breaks they take, regardless of overall productivity. Is it possible that removing emotion, by using a machine to assess employees, is a more accurate and fairer alternative to the current system?

“Consider, for instance, the pluses of knowing how employee “Joe Smith” works during the busy season, as well as how often he uses a specific conference room, eats in the office pantry; in effect, how he spends his time here and there. Surely, there are implications for privacy, rights and intellectual property, but it’s easy to see there are clear advantages in the automated tracking of productivity to determine how it can be improved,” suggests Spector in a recent article.

The advantages are fairly clear, although there is no doubt some discussion to be had on the machine’s ability to pick up on all the nuances of human behavior. What is less clear is the privacy implication of machine-based monitoring and, more importantly, the reaction of employees to this new, seemingly more invasive, development.

It seems unlikely that the average employee would complain if the machine-based employee monitoring system deemed them to be over-stressed and prescribed paid days off beyond their usual allocation – although complaints may come from colleagues who were not afforded the same treatment. Would a system be fairer if it judged everyone the same or if it judged each employee by their ability and productive capacity, and how important is fairness?

This concept raises other questions too. If a employee wanted to work less without repercussions, they may choose to lower their bar of productivity or appear more stressed in order to fool the system. This trickery is not limited to machine based employee monitoring but it is not clear whether our future machine based monitoring systems or our human intuition would be better at identifying such things.

Things get a bit more serious when data collection and analysis is used to determine the allocation of annual bonuses, or selecting employees for promotions and dismissals. In such cases the workplace would be much more “big brother,” with employees working to “impress” the machine boss (or overlord). A little sensationalist perhaps, but are employee monitoring systems and human implants the first steps to this dystopian future? And if so, should we stop it in its tracks or is there a line to be drawn?

Looking into the future of machine based employee monitoring raises more questions than we can answer right now. However, the theme of smart technology, artificial intelligence and the internet of things, has been one of rushing in head first and working out the issues later. If such tactics are used for employee monitoring, it could have serious implications for society, begging the question: how far are we willing to go for greater workplace productivity?

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