Technological advances in monitoring and surveillance call to mind the lyrics of The Police’s widely misinterpreted hit, Every Breath You Take. But how will this emerging new frontier play out in workplaces and work practices? As technology continues to accelerate, many employers are starting to think about how to harness these developments in order to achieve greater workplace productivity and consistent health and safety outcomes.

When we think of workplace surveillance, it’s easy to get stuck thinking about the traditional measures that have been widely used for the last 10 years or so – email monitoring, CCTV and the occasional dash-board camera. These methods have historically been used for safety, security and compliance. But as workplaces become more remote and isolated and there are lower numbers of employees on any one site, organisations are looking beyond traditional methods and embracing the latest monitoring technology – both to deal with safety and security, but also as a direct way of measuring employee productivity.

The new frontier of workplace monitoring includes the use of:

  • drones to monitor inaccessible work sites;
  • caps worn by employees operating heavy duty machinery or vehicles which use infra-red technology to identify fatigue indicators such as yawning and prolonged blinking, and where such fatigue indicators occur, send an alert to either the employee or a manager;
  • satellite monitoring of speed limits for employee driven vehicles in remote locations which instantly alert drivers and managers to speed limit infringements; and
  • without getting too Matrix-y about it, there even exists headwear which can measure the electrical activity of the brain in order to determine when your mind, quite literally, isn’t on the job.

Some innovations haven’t even been applied to the workplace yet. For example, in the tech industry, it is common for companies developing apps and websites to road test new developments with consumers by using eye tracking technology to monitor where a tester’s eyes are drawn on a computer or tablet screen (and how long the user spends looking at particular parts). It is not a great leap to think that employers could use similar technology to measure employee productivity – for example, in call centres where time efficiency outcomes and work outputs are intrinsically linked. This technology could measure the workplace productivity (and therefore focus) of each employee by tracking their vision on a computer screen. There may also be compliance benefits for companies that require their employees to provide disclosures regarding transactions – this technology could measure whether an employee looked at those requirements on a screen prior to carrying them out. Or, simply, monitoring whether or not an employee looks at their mobile phone whilst driving a vehicle in the performance of their role.

Closer to home, technological advances continue to make us reassess and update our personal practices to allow devices to monitor our location and behaviour (hello exercise trackers, Find My Friend and the new Parked Car feature in the iPhone’s iOS 10 – trust us, it’ll weird you out when you get an unsolicited notification as to where you left your car). So is it only a matter of time before these technological advances, and the general comfort and acceptance of them, translate into the introduction of new monitoring and surveillance practices in our workplaces?

We think the answer is yes, particularly where there is little doubt that new technology could provide information that will deliver increased productivity and health and safety outcomes. However, putting to one side the legal implementation questions, these developments raise some serious operational questions for employers:

  • what is the best method to measure productivity in your workplace and is there a technological advance that will make this easier? Simply introducing a new technology for the sake of appearing ‘cutting edge’ may be counter-productive and expensive.
  • how will you balance the introduction of new technology with the cultural impact this might have on your employees? Employees may be reluctant to allow this sort of Big Brother monitoring and have legitimate concerns about how the information from new monitoring systems might be used. How you start the conversation with your employees regarding monitoring (especially in regard to the reasons why you are doing it) will be an important step.

Balancing increased workplace productivity and consistent health and safety outcomes with a positive workplace culture is not a new concept for employers, but we think that advances in technology (and our attitude towards technology) mean that a new frontier in workplace monitoring and surveillance will be a critical feature of the future of work and how employers measure productivity. The big question is, are we ready for it?