Is the workplace watching us?

The workplace of the future is often portrayed as a high-tech nirvana in which smart offices, collaboration tools, brainstorming spaces, “hot” desking, bot assistants and other cool stuff combine to make employees more productive, empowered and satisfied.

But they might also be under constant camera surveillance, their every move recorded and analyzed so employers can spot slackers, thieves and workers with excessively weak bladders.

Sounds paranoid, but two different tech writers came away from Microsoft’s Build developer conference with a slightly “icky” (to use a clinical term) feeling about the workplace of the future.

In a piece titled “Microsoft’s Latest Workplace Tech Demos Creep Me Out,” Gizmodo Reviews Editor Alex Cranz discusses a demo of cameras monitoring a construction site. The cloud-based cameras fed data in real time to an AI system that could instantly identify employees, recognize if equipment was being used improperly or notice if an unauthorized person was on the premises.

“Microsoft’s demo purposely focused on a construction worksite, where accidents are too common, and a smart AI overseer sort of makes sense,” she writes. “But my brain immediately started conjuring a scenario that was much more oppressive — One where these cameras were in some open office where people come to work in skirts or button downs from Dillard’s. Not a place where security or safety is a primary concern, but instead, a place where employers obsessively monitor employees in some misguided attempt to maximize profit by chewing up and spitting out the fleshy cogs in their machine.”

No thanks, says this fleshy cog.

Fast Company contributor Mark Sullivan — who also saw the Build demos — shares similar qualms:

“That feeling you have when you’re parked at a traffic light and you know the cameras are on you? That could be our 24/7 reality at work, as analyst Ross Rubin put it to me here in Seattle at Microsoft’s Build developer conference.”

Microsoft hardly is the only company working on technology that combines AI, cameras and other surveillance and tracking tools in order to improve workplace safety and efficiency. There are many others, from fellow tech giants to hundreds of start-ups.

The real issue is how these technologies and others (such as robots) will be used in the workplace — and what their impact will be on employees and employers. Will we see some employers tout “no surveillance” environments in order to attract the best talent? Or will surveillance technologies in the workplace become as ubiquitous as mobile devices?

It’s hard to predict how far this will go, and many enterprise IT pros soon may have to make some hard decisions about what kinds of surveillance technologies they’re willing to implement and manage on behalf of their employers.

Does your enterprise use any kind of surveillance technology? Do you think it’s a good or bad thing? Let us know in the comments section below.


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  1. This could get worse – depending on your point of view of Big Brother. We are getting better at measuring productivity – having moved away from measuring “hours in a building” towards task focused performance – this will become more so with the increase in the “gig economy”.
    Today we estimate the effort a task will take and resource accordingly. As we measure more, the telemetry and analytics can start to guide us on how much effort something should take – and if we were paranoid, we will find our typing rate, or number of calls, or even number of digital assets (emails or documents etc) on a topic become the indicator of performance and productivity.
    However, this insight can also help; de-risk projects, improve resourcing, costing and estimates, but we need to balance how the insight is applied.
    To paraphrase Uncle Ben, With great insight, comes great responsibility

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