Desk sensors and office screenings: Health precautions or surveillance through the backdoor?

With the Covid-19 vaccination campaigns advancing in many countries, the desire for traditional work is growing again. A rebound effect from remote work to office work was to be expected. Leaders prefer their employees close, teams might notice higher loyalty and trust when working face-to-face, and probably most remote workers have experienced Zoom fatigue at some point.

Going back to the office means waking up earlier, exchanging sweatpants for more formal business attire, and commuting to the more cramped and lively areas of your city.

But this time, a hint of surveillance might accompany the return to the office. According to Reuters, Neil Murray, CEO of corporate solutions at JLL, explains that companies will heavily rely on technology to avoid office spaces becoming too full.

JLL manages offices. Many banks like JPMorgan, Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs are among their clients. They will implement desk-booking apps to avoid crowded spaces that might lead to new Covid infections. Murray says: “We have to be more mindful about how space is being used and when it is being used.” So far, so good.

However, Murray adds that some of his clients are considering installing desk sensors and camera systems that analyze how many people are in a room. These technologies allow for better contact tracing, yet to employees, they can feel invasive. Asked about the tracking systems, bank workers are reserved.

With new Covid variants emerging and affecting millions of people across the globe, the pandemic is yet far from ending. Since its outbreak, countless technology-based solutions like tracing apps have helped citizens to reduce the risk of contracting Covid.

Installing cameras to detect the presence of teams might cross a line and normalize inappropriate monitoring methods. Under the pretense of health concerns, workers could gradually accept and grow accustomed to systems tracking them.

This trend is not new. Trade unions and think tanks like the Institute of the Future of Work have been alarmed about the increased rate of employee tracking. Especially in low-paid jobs like warehouse workers and delivery drivers, algorithms measure how efficiently employees fulfill their tasks. PwC developed a sensor that would measure if an employee was at his or her desk, and Fujitsu created an AI tool that would read facial muscle movements to determine the concentration level.

The British cybersecurity expert Brian Honan illustrates the dilemma for companies:

“Companies do have a duty of care to protect their business and they do have a legitimate interest in ensuring their business interests are taken care of, but they have to be balanced against the rights of the individual in the workplace.”

He believes that many monitoring measures could be classified as illegal under the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). But beyond the potential regulation issues, Honan stresses that a work environment dominated by monitoring is unlikely to foster productive outcomes.

This article was originally published in my newsletter Jobs Meet Tech.

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