Sensors and sensibility: technology and workplace privacy

Remote working


As we are seeing more and more in the news, the concept of employee privacy in the workplace is becoming more complicated with the increasing use of technology.

For example, desk sensors have recently become an issue of some debate. A number of banks and financial services companies have begun installing desk sensors that can detect an employee’s presence at their desk. Spokespeople for these companies have justified these new additions to office life as a way to make more efficient use of office space and cut costs. However, it’s clear that employees remain wary of how surveillance technology like this will impact their right to privacy.

Companies need to ask themselves if new measures to improve office efficiency are worth it if it means their employees start to feel uneasy at work. Privacy is too often an underappreciated factor of employee wellbeing. Indeed, our research revealed 41% of employees would be reluctant to report a problem to their manager because they worry their privacy would be compromised. This is undoubtedly the lesson the Daily Telegraph learned last year, when they introduced desk sensors and had to withdraw them within a day due to backlash from employees and journalist unions.

This is not to say that businesses should shun technology – take Adobe, for example. In contrast to the Daily Telegraph, Adobe from the start had employee privacy at the forefront of their minds when they considered introducing desk sensors in their London office. Their first step was to consult with both employment lawyers and a committee of employees. This meant the idea was introduced in a way to give the staff time to consider sensors and understand the point of them – sensors are actually not a literal threat to privacy, since they are anonymous and cannot identify particular people. By first informing staff they were considering sensors, and by asking for their opinions in advance, Adobe showed they were thinking of their employees and had their feelings and concerns in mind.

Technology often contributes to the development of more flexible working; an attractive benefit to many workers. In particular, sensors are great to use in tandem with hot desking, a form of agile working that encourages flexibility and is meant to better suit the mobile way business is done today. If staff are not prepared for the introduction of something new like sensors, they may react defensively and become wary of something which is in fact designed to benefit them. Management should prepare and inform their staff when introducing new technology to the office – not simply spring it on them. Whether it is desk sensors, monitoring emails, or whatever new technology will provide employers with next, leaders shouldn’t underestimate the power of communicating clearly with their staff in these situations.

There is also a delicate balance to be struck between privacy and collaboration. I’m a big advocate for open-plan working as it breaks down silos between teams and facilitates cross-organisational working, the identification of solutions to common issues and less linear career planning. But at the same time, non-physical barriers and personal sense of territory need to be respected.

Outside the office people are rightfully concerned about their privacy, so it follows that in workplace they are even more so. By all means use sensors – just use a little sensibility, too.

*Nick Goldberg is CEO UK & Ireland for Lee Hecht Harrison | Penna.


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