The monitored office: Dystopian future workplace or efficient business of tomorrow?


Biometrics and wearables are making their way into the workplace as employers modernise access control and time-keeping. But with no legal framework in place, does this trend benefit businesses or violate employees’ rights?

The pressures facing businesses today are enormous. The economic crisis, competition in the marketplace and the continued rise of the data-driven culture mean employees are expected to work smarter and faster than ever before.

Against this backdrop, it is little wonder that technology that promises to help people do just that is generating excitement in boardrooms across the world. From Coca Cola to Apple and hundreds of companies in between, biometric and wearable technology is being explored to make businesses run quicker, safer and in a more cost effective way.

Early adopters suggest these types of technology are having a positive impact on performance but critics warn that a surveillance culture can lead to stress, sickness absence and higher staff turnover. So where should the line be drawn? And what can you do if you don’t fancy working in an office where Big Brother is watching you at all times?


Biometrics on the rise

In February tech consultancy Gartner projected that the number of organisations using biometric authentication for mobile devices would rise from five percent to 30% by 2016. As biometric technology has improved over the last decade, the use of fingerprint, face, voice and hand authentication has emerged as a more efficient alternative to more traditional access control methods such as cards, PINs and passwords.

“Biometrics are used across all vertical markets to solve the identity management challenge by linking physical and digital identities,” says Elaine Bliss, senior vice president of marketing and product management at Crossmatch, a leader in biometric-based identity management tech.

The adoption of fingerprint biometrics has been accelerated by industry giants such as Apple and Microsoft

“Businesses are using biometrics to secure access to networks and applications so they know for sure who accessed what, when. They are also using biometrics to reduce fraud in payroll and transactions. Biometric solutions empower businesses to mitigate risk, drive productivity and improve service levels.

“Among the different biometrics, fingerprints are the most mature and dominant biometric used in commercial applications. The adoption of fingerprint biometrics has been accelerated by industry giants such as Apple and Microsoft, who have incorporated fingerprint biometrics directly into their products.”


Vast potential for wearables

Wearable technology has been pioneered commercially over the last few years by the likes of the Nike Fuelband, Jawbone UP and the much-vaunted Google Glass. Now research and anecdotal evidence suggests that this kind of technology is beginning to find its way into offices and factories around the world.

Research from open cloud company Rackspace, which surveyed over 4,000 people in the US and UK in 2013, found that a small number of early adopter businesses (six percent) are already providing wearable technology devices for their employees. They also found that there is scope for the use of wearable technology in business to increase, with a third of respondents stating that they would be willing to wear devices offered by their employer.

“There are two types of wearable technology – wrist mounted and head mounted,” says Duncan Stewart, director of research for technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte in Canada. “Wrist mounted wearables are predominantly used to authenticate who you are.

“At Deloitte, our consultants used to spend a lot of time filling out time sheets on their PCs and mobiles to map their movements around the world. Now we’re using wrist mounted time trackers, the jobs and clients people are working with is logged automatically.”

If you talk to people in the medical, security or materials handling industries they’re terribly excited

However, it is head mounted wearable technology that offers the most exciting potential for development, giving users the benefit of hands-free working, augmented reality and the ability to take pictures and video whilst they’re on the move.

“Imagine if you’re driving around a warehouse on a forklift truck, you’d be able to wear a device that could tell you exactly where the pallet you’re looking for is and what is stacked in front of it,” explains Stewart. “You’d also be able to record what you were doing so that, for instance, if one of the boxes was broken when you took it down you’d be able to prove it and demonstrate that you carried out your work with all due care.

“The potential is enormous but the appetite varies by industry. In the banking sector, the view is that wearable technology would not benefit either the customers or the businesses. However, if you talk to people in the medical, security or materials handling industries they’re terribly excited. They expect to see wearable technology become widely used within five years and adopted as best practice within ten.”


The next frontier

People are already working on the convergence of biometric and wearable technology to provide the ultimate authentication device. Last year Bionym created the Nymi bracelet, a wearable powered by a person’s unique cardiac rhythm that can be used instead of swipe cards and passwords to help users sign into computers and open doors.

“Your heartbeat is consistent, which makes it different from an iris or fingerprint which needs to be scanned,” says Lee Odess, general manager at Brivo Labs, which is partnering with Bionym to develop the technology. “This makes it a frictionless form of identification, since you don’t need to stop to be verified.

The next step would be to offer the consumer personalised information

“We are now beginning to see technology that allows people to present themselves to spaces and in response, spaces know what to do with this knowledge. This means that, while opening doors and unlocking passwords are a starting point, the next step would be to offer the consumer personalised information, such as the specific seat they are assigned to at a baseball game or that a concession stand several feet away that might trigger a peanut allergy.

“It’s not just about a signing in. It’s about bringing attributes about yourself so that you can have a curated experience.”

Big Brother is watching

While the possibilities opened up by biometric and wearable technology are exciting to many, they are a source of concern to many others. The UK’s biggest trade union, UNISON, has warned of the dangers of what it calls a surveillance culture and is rallying members on how to fight the introduction of such technologies in their workplaces.

“UNISON believes that workers should not be subject to unnecessary or intrusive monitoring at work,” the union said in a factsheet sent out to members. “A surveillance culture in the workplace can lead to increased stress, sickness absence and staff turnover. Biometric monitoring, particularly for the purposes of checking on time-keeping, clearly qualifies as an over-the-top and unnecessary measure.

UNISON believes that employers should aim to develop a relationship with staff based on trust – not excessive monitoring

“There is also the question of the kind of relationship that employers want to have with their staff. The process of finger-printing is understandably associated with criminality in the public mind. So when employers start fingerprinting their own staff it sends out a very negative and confrontational message. UNISON believes that employers should aim to develop a relationship with staff based on trust – not excessive monitoring.”

Aside from issues of privacy the use of wearable technology could, if handled badly, have further negative impacts upon the companies that are employing it, according to Duncan Stewart.

“If you have employees going around with wearable cameras will that lead to people spying on each other?” he says. “That could be a problem but the biggest thing would be the potential threat to intellectual property (IP). Lots of sensitive processes take place behind closed doors. If everyone is recording everything then it could easily lead to leaks that could cost companies billions of dollars in lost IP.”


Keeping it legal

As there are no direct laws governing the use of biometrics and wearable technology in the UK, employers would have to obtain the consent of their staff to record and process biometric data in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998. But what can you do if you’re placed in a position where you feel uncomfortable by the technology your boss is asking you to use?

“Employees are likely to be suspicious that the information will be used for other purposes and employers would need to explain why they are looking to impose change, how it will affect staff and how the information will be used,” explains Chris Tutton, employment partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell.

The development of biometrics and wearable tech will no doubt outpace the development of workplace rules

“An employer should consult its workforce before introducing this type of new technology and ensure they deal with all concerns in a reasonable manner. If this does not allay the employees’ concerns, they should discuss these with their employer. Employees have the right to raise a grievance about their working conditions and employers must deal with these appropriately in accordance with the ACAS Code of Practice.

“If the business mishandles the process and for example, adopts a heavy handed approach, an employee might be able to claim that this has undermined his trust and confidence in the employer and decide to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal. The employee would need to have at least two years’ service to bring such a claim, but if successful, he could be awarded up to twelve months gross pay.

“The development of biometrics and wearable tech will no doubt continue to outpace the development of legislation and workplace rules. Whilst the legal framework slowly catches up, workplace norms will have to recalibrate as these technologies become all the more pervasive.”

Image two courtesy of Google and image four courtesy of Jawbone

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