Writing for Bloomberg Businessweek, Rebecca Greenfield highlights an exciting new trend in office design that harness the power of data to develop new workplace efficiencies, while also presenting unique challenges to workers concerned about privacy. Devices that measure the frequency with which employees come and go, use certain areas of an office building, and even the patterns of oral communication have been collecting data at hundreds of companies around the world, including roughly 15 percent of all Fortune 500 companies. Greenfield concedes that these devices have a Big Brother or James Bond mystique, but companies like Enlighted have developed innovative ways to mine data and use that data to improve the space that companies use. On balance, despite legitimate fears of intrusiveness by employers, these super smart sensors have the capacity to transform the workplace into an even more functional efficient environment.
Although headlines that rightfully scare workers announce things like “hidden devices” stashed in light fixtures and inside of ID badges, the idea that employers are more motivated to snoop on their workers or track them like prey is less likely than the compelling desire to increase profits and build a more productive office space. Enlighted’s data is entirely anonymous, which means that all of the information that clients gather using the sensors in their offices is within the legal boundaries of U.S. law. Employers are already equipped with an array of tools that facilitate monitoring in almost every corner of the office. Rather than using cameras, snooping on employee computer usage, or using actual managers to track employees, these new devices are a highly sophisticated method of gathering the same information and using it in much smarter ways.
Perhaps most strikingly, Greenfield discovered that many workers do not mind this type of data collection. She cites a Pew Research Center study from last year found that a majority of U.S. workers could permit monitoring and data gathering if done for safety reasons. In fact, safety is just one of the positive byproducts of surveillance in the work place. These sensors can detect everything from energy usage to daylight to motion. One major architecture firm mentioned in the Bloomberg article this week estimates that it has saved 25 percent in energy costs since installing 1000 sensors in the light fixtures in its New York office. Over the next five years those savings could exceed $200,000, which will more than cover the installation costs.
Most surprisingly, these sensors can sometimes include small microphones that track sounds of speech, so that employers can actually tell how long a worker has gone without speaking to coworker. Not unlike many other features of these devices, these microphones might seem like a way for bosses to keep their workers from pleasant conversation with work friends, but it might also signal a need to tear down walls or other barriers in the workplace that prevent employees from great collaboration. Sensors cannot actually do the work, but they can dramatically enhance the flow.