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Business Impact

Your Cubicle Has Ears—and Eyes, and a Brain

Sensors and AI can keep tabs on employees better than any boss.

Employers have long wanted to know how their workers spend their time. New office surveillance technology is now making the task far easier.

Bloomberg reports that an increasing number of companies are outfitting offices with sensors to keep track of employees. These sensors are hidden in lights, on walls, under desks—anywhere that allows them to measure things like where people are and how much they are talking or moving.

The raw data is just the beginning. New Scientist recently reported that a startup called StatusToday uses software to crunch information on everything from key card swipes to what applications people are using on their computers to understand how employees—and the business as a whole—operate.

Advocates suggest that insights from these kinds of initiatives can streamline companies and spot potential problems before they happen. Perhaps only two-thirds of desks get used at any moment, so the company can downsize the amount of office space they lease. Or maybe an employee looks at a lot of sensitive data and schedules a large number of external meetings, so the system flags them as a potential security risk. These are, after all, the problems that keep senior management awake at night.

Of course, the such schemes can also be read as creepy, Big Brother-style surveillance.

Some companies are willing to take that risk in the hopes that it will lead to a more creative, productive workforce. In the case of Boston Consulting Group’s swanky new Manhattan offices and some parts of the U.K.’s National Health Service and professional services firm Deloitte, employees are being (voluntarily) tracked using biometric devices made by a company called Humanyze.

These devices use sensors to measure movement, sound, and location, among other things, allowing firms to really see what their staff are doing. According to Crain’s, the devices even go as far as measuring what’s known as latency: “how long an individual goes without uttering a word to anyone—and when that word does come, where does it happen and to whom is it addressed.” That could, say, reveal that employees have their best brainstorms in a particular breakout area—or spend too much time chattering in the kitchen.

The guilty will fear the fact that such scrutiny could reveal them as the slackers they are. In the meantime, the rest of us may have to grudgingly accept the intrusion. Because, as Bloomberg notes, in the U.S. it’s perfectly legal to record what happens in the workplace. So don't spend too long at the water cooler.

(Read more: Bloomberg, New Scientist, Crain’s, New York Post)

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