Employers are watching their workers. It’s their responsibility to create privacy lines.

As office workers return, their world will be different. Tools and metrics used for location-based tracking of workers is likely to be ubiquitous. Employers can track their workers’ every move, so letting them know how they will use the data will be critical to maintaining culture and trust.

Your boss knows when you go to the bathroom. Your boss knows if you washed your hands.

Under the guise of contact tracing and social distance enforcement, a plethora of tracking and monitoring solutions have entered the market. In May of 2020, Jake Bittle detailed the planned use cases implications of programs like nGage for employee tracking in the workplace as part of Slate’s “Privacy in the Pandemic” series.  Getting within six feet of a coworker? Your phone will buzz to tell you to stay away. Didn’t spend enough time at the sink after coming in from picking up lunch? Your activity badge will buzz to remind you to wash your hands. While the use cases are generally built and marketed around COVID-19 safety, the implications are clear—tracking technology is readily available and easily implementable at a large scale. Put more sinisterly, it is cheap and easy for your boss to track all of your movements while at work. Depending on the tracking device and method, this can easily continue outside the office doors. Your boss can track you, all the time.

This should not be surprising. While the depth, specificity, and use cases for employee tracking may seem new, the capacity to do so has been around for a long time. In fact, location-based activity tracking has been in use for a long time as well, albeit in somewhat different forms. Many employees already choose to share their movement data with others using fitness trackers. The recipients of this data may potentially already include employers, whether directly through workplace step challenges or more circuitously through data shared with health plans. Exact location data was regularly collected, so even if it was not yet shared directly with employers, it should not be surprising that it was possible to do so. And if the experience of history is any guide, we should know that once available, it’s only a matter of time before a technology is used.

But is this really happening? Uptake of contact tracing apps was initially anemic, and even the built in tools offered by Apple and Android had only limited uptake. Though initial predictions of the return to office work warned that employers would be constantly spying on and tracking employees the lived experience of the last year tells us it’s probably not happening quite so fast—that is, unless you’re a certain kind of worker.

While white collar workers may still experience some freedom to move anonymously in the workplace, warehouse workers, for example, have been tracked for a long time. Amazon famously tracks its employees around every inch of its warehouses and constantly collects and analyzes second-by-second data. Use of tracking technology is expected with driving-based services like Uber or long-distanced trucking. Lower tech versions have been used for decades to track cashiers. This is in part because these data are useful—tracking an employee around a warehouse can be used to develop productivity measures, and tracking a shipment is useful both for monitoring productivity and ensuring security. By contrast, creating actually useful metrics based on tracking data on white collar workers has proven more difficult, though many have tried. Relative worker power also plays a crucial role, though a thorough discussion is outside the scope of this blog post.

However, as employers begin to bring white collar workers back into offices, the choices they make around tracking and location tools are likely to shape their organizations’ cultures and workforces for years to come. Following over a year of remote work, contact tracing, and a general data collection explosion, public acceptance of workplace tracking tools like Amazon Panorama is growing. This can be enormously beneficial for employers, but it risk creating serious trust issues for employees.

How can employers combat this challenge? One simple solution may be to clarify for workers what they will collect and how the data will be used. Yes, your employer may be tracking whether you wash your hands when you leave the bathroom. No, they will not be using the amount of time you spend in the bathroom to make health suggestion about your bowel movements. In short, employers need to draw boundaries for their employees. In a world where data collection is constant and infinite, employees need to know that privacy lines still exist.

 

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1 thought on “Employers are watching their workers. It’s their responsibility to create privacy lines.

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful post. My first reaction is that employers would not want to make public commitments on what they will not monitor, in case they realize additional data would be useful in the future. It seems initially alarming that employers would want to further encroach on their workforce’s privacy. But over the past decade, people have become more comfortable sharing personal information and so it seems reasonable for employers to start analyzing more workforce data as their employees become less protective of their data.

    One anecdote: I used to be very protective of my cell phone number. When I got my first cell, it was unfathomable to me that I would share my number with any stranger, never mind all the websites that have my number now.

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