· Features

How closely should employers monitor staff?

Employers have been using analytics for some time to understand what makes their staff tick. They have more data than ever on employees, and more tools and technology with which to analyse it.

But should we monitor people who work for us in the same way we monitor machinery and equipment? Can their behaviour be predicted, or even manipulated, in the same way? Is it even ethical to try?

Radio frequency identification tags allow companies to track their staff’s movements around the workplace and even monitor sound waves to identify how stressed or relaxed they are when they speak. In one trial, a retailer was able to increase sales by 15% after they noticed that the presence of a staff member in certain areas of the store had a high impact on products sold, while in other areas it had very little effect.

But the devices aren’t limited to businesses whose staff regularly move around. In a seated office environment, they record how long an employee is at their desk; how long they spend interacting with other staff; who they talk to; the distance they stand from each other during conversations; and their enthusiasm in meetings.

It may sound Orwellian, but how it is received by staff will probably depend on the way it is used. If utilised as a disciplinary tool it is sure to fuel resentment. But when used to gain an overview of the company, it will generate fewer complaints and more useful insights.

Bank of America, which uses 'smart badges’ to track employee movements, claims to have improved performance metrics by 23% and stress levels (measured by analysing workers’ voices) by 19%, simply by allowing staff to take their breaks together.

Wearable technology is responsible for an explosion of data, which can be harnessed by employers to promote staff wellbeing. Take the ‘Up’ band, which monitors sleep patterns. Not only can it wake you when you are in a light rather than deep sleep phase (irrespective of when you set your alarm), but it’s also perfect for anyone who travels extensively for business. If you are in two or three different time zones a week, it will tell you the optimal time to have a power nap and even calculate the length of the power nap, waking you at the right time for you to recharge more quickly.

But the flip side is the company has collected a huge amount of data about the individual wearing the band – everything from their calorie consumption to the amount of exercise they do and their sleeping patterns. Would staff regard that as intrusive? Would they trust the company not to abuse their personal data?

As in so many areas of data and analytics, that depends on how personal data is used. There are far more useful (and less provocative) uses for employee data collection and analysis, than enforcing discipline over who takes the most toilet breaks. If, instead, an employer uses it to encourage them to sleep on the job it is unlikely they will get many complaints.

Bernard Marr is chief executive of the Advanced Performance Institute