Technology that helps us can also hurt us. A great example of this is the growing ability to track employees, both in the office and outside.
On the positive side is the ability to use the data from minutely tracking employees to improve work processes, cut down on waste and drive efficiency. In extreme cases, it can find workers who drop into taverns during work and help locate anyone who has suffered medical emergencies.
On the other side of the ledger is the very real threat to civil liberties. Does an employer have a right to know where a worker eats lunch? What doctor he or she goes to? If he or she is dropping by a competitor’s office for a job interview? Even if the parameters of the employer’s right to know are answered in a legal sense, what is the impact on morale and productivity if employees feel that big brother is watching?
The benefits of employee tracking were discussed at GigaOm’s Structured Conference this week in San Francisco. As is often the case, health care is the best place to explore issues related to new technology. Ashley Simmons, the director of performance improvement at Florida Hospital Celebration Health, described the benefits of monitoring. She suggested that something as simple as finding out where staff spends its off-time can have a positive impact.
The story raises an interesting point, perhaps inadvertently. On one hand, it implies that oversight will be as granular as checking to make sure staffers washed their hands. On the other, Simmons explains that the key to buy-in by those staffers was enfranchising them:
One of the biggest things was just bringing employees into the discussion from the beginning and asking how the data that location sensors would collect could help them do their jobs. As the program matured and expanded, nurses and doctors are kept in the loop to ensure everything is still working.
This may be true. However, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which employees had to fear being called out for not washing their hands. Of course, the tracking is meant with good intention. But it is almost certain that fears of overreach won’t be calmed simply by including some staffers in the process.
There are legal issues as well. Tracy Moon, Jr., an attorney in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips LLP, lays out the landscape: A company has some legitimate reasons to track workers. However, the company may be subject to a lawsuit if it receives information not related to employment, such as where the employee worships.
For organizations considering an employee tracking policy, the answer is to be careful. A good first step is to set up strong policies. These must clearly define the organization’s reasons for tracking workers. The employee should be made responsible for turning the tracking devices on and off. A written acknowledgment should be obtained stating that the employee understands the policy and consents to the tracking.
There are shades of gray to this concept, as well. RFID Journal describes systems using radio frequency identification (RFID) technology that can be activated only when needed and that are not viable over more than a short distance. These can be used to determine who is in the building and who isn’t during an emergency. Placing RFIDs on vehicles can track comings and goings as well, especially for employees who must make pickups and deliveries.
Through all of the challenges, though, the technology is the simplest part of the employee tracking equation. Time will tell whether the concept takes off in popularity or if the legal issues are solved.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.