Track-and-trace management: The crisis is not an opportunity to test it out

Written by Charles Orton-Jones Tuesday 06 October 2020
As we move into an era of more homeworking and persistent safety concerns in offices, managers are weighing up the ethical issues raised by greater employee surveillance
Blurred employees walking through office

Track and trace is here to stay: digital surveillance is now thought to be the best way of identifying potential virus-carriers, eventually offering us a route out of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many managers have admitted to using tracking software since lockdown began as a way to measure – and perhaps, boost – productivity. Shibu Phillip says that he uses the software – which has seen an increase in sales since March 2020 – to make sure procedure is followed by every employee, and to use individuals as an example if they’re excelling.

South Korea has indicated how effective track and trace can be in suppressing the spread of Coronavirus. The country’s infection curve wasn’t just flattened – it hit a brick wall. Jerome Kim, the director general of the International Vaccine Institute in Seoul, attributes that progress to “decisive and transparent leadership based on data, not emotion”.

Can we learn anything from this? Could you manage your employees better with your own version of track and trace? Is it possible – or ethical – to try and deliver productivity gains using data, not emotion?

Over the past few years, there has been a boom in digital tracking tools for managers. But these tools throw up complex questions. For example, with more people working from home, are higher levels of monitoring a reasonable price to pay for greater flexibility? What safeguards should there be against the threat of creeping 24/7 employer surveillance? Which activities are reasonable to track, and which are just plain creepy?

Fundamentally, this is a question of trust. At its extreme, it begs the question: if managers trust their people so little that they’re prepared to put them under surveillance, why are they employing them in the first place? The best management and leadership is a two-way relationship in which people perform to their best because they feel trusted and empowered.

But there’s no doubt that the whole question of monitoring will come into sharper focus in the years ahead. To answer some of the tough questions around it, it’s worth understanding the tools that are on the market and already being used. Only then can you make your own decisions on whether, and how extensively, to deploy them yourself.

With great power...

At the most extreme end of the spectrum is Teramind, an employee monitoring service offering total coverage of every call made, message sent and website visited. Keystrokes are logged. Screenshots and videos can even be taken without the employee being aware.

The legality of US-based services such as Teramind in the UK remains an open question. The Employment Practices Code published by the Information Commissioner’s Office stresses the need to conform with the Data Protection Act and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which creates a right to respect for one’s private life and correspondence. The code offers detailed guidance, but also this concise summary: “The Data Protection Act does not prevent monitoring. Indeed, in some cases monitoring might be necessary to satisfy its requirements. However, any adverse impact of monitoring on individuals must be justified by the benefits to the employer and others.”

So there’s not necessarily a legal barrier to tracking your employees, but there may well be an ethical one. Hannah Elderfield is associate insights director at behavioural consultancy Canvas8. She’s dubious about tracking technologies, pointing instead to the trend towards managing work output rather than employee input. “Employees should be free to do what they want, so long as they deliver results,” she says. “Leaders should focus on building a high-trust culture, so there’s no need for constant monitoring.

“Ask yourself this: would you rather work for a company that digitally tracks everything you do, even when you go to the bathroom? Or an employer who respects your privacy and leaves you to work in peace?” The secret, as CMI has consistently found, is trust. Trust is the glue that binds relationships and teams, and drives high performance.

Location, location, location...

Perhaps, then, there’s a case to be made for tracking that complements a high-trust culture. Offices can now be transformed with sensors, for example. Enlighted, owned by Siemens, fits internet-connected sensors to office ceilings to monitor staff members’ positions. The firm claims its tech is now used by 15% of Fortune 500 companies, and it’s using COVID-19 to market its technology as a way to enforce in-office social distancing. If an employee tests positive for the virus, it’s possible to identify every colleague they crossed paths with and which parts of the office need disinfecting.

One other benefit of location tracking is improved energy efficiency, as lighting and heating can be turned on only where they’re needed. The NHS trust that runs the Thomas Linacre Outpatient Centre in Wigan has installed 612 LED fittings and sensors for precisely this reason. The sensors also double up as asset trackers, enabling the trust to locate kit such as wheelchairs throughout the building.

A rival system by UbiqiSense uses door-mounted sensors to monitor the flow of people around buildings. The system recognises the shape of a person without identifying them, making it fully GDPR-compliant. The software also works with existing CCTV. Aarhus University in Denmark uses this system to monitor the distribution of students in lecture halls, helping to optimise room use.

It's only a fitbit...

Tracking technology could even potentially improve the health and wellbeing of employees too. Fitbit, Apple Watch and Polar all offer fitness apps for corporate users. Staff are encouraged to wear one of these devices and enrol on a company platform. Medical Mutual, the largest healthcare insurer in Ohio, was an early adopter. Its in-house wellness manager says: “Fitbits made sense because they enabled us to see whether there were improvements in the biometric data as a result of using the devices. We’ve watched employees go from only achieving maybe 2,000 steps per day all the way to 8,000 or 10,000 steps. We’re not so much focused on the number of steps as on that culture of movement. We saw that people were sedentary for hours, but now they’re moving for a 15-minute break instead of just sitting there.”

Find the idea of monitoring employees’ personal fitness odd? What about keeping an eye on their feelings? Hull-based startup Moodbeam won the innovation prize at the 2019 Barclays Entrepreneur Awards for its bracelet with up and down arrows. Employees press up if they’re feeling happy, and down if they’re stressed or upset. Crucially, the scores are anonymised, with managers seeing team or departmental data. Construction firms Morgan Sindall and Willmott Dixon are holding trials of Moodbeam, alongside procurement partner Pagabo. “The industry is starting to talk about the pressure that’s felt by the workforce, and this pioneering initiative provides a way to stay in tune with how staff are feeling,” says Simon Toplass, CEO of Pagabo. “The data captured during the trials is completely anonymous and will be used to highlight any challenges and stress points on-site, as well as capturing when things are going well.”

The current turbulence makes tracking staff mood more important than ever, Toplass adds. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created added pressures for people, affecting their wellbeing both in and out of work. Moodbeam’s wristband design allows workers to have a voice through discreet, anonymous feedback – by simply pushing a single button.”

Anonymity may well be the key here. Indeed, there’s a growing suite of tools offering anonymous employee insights. For example, employee engagement platform Trickle enables users to share anonymised ideas and concerns across departments. It’s already used by ScottishPower and boiler firm Vaillant. And now that track and trace is a reality both in civil life and the workplace, managers will have some tough choices to make about the tools at their disposal. The question, then, is how much intrusion employees – and managers – can stomach.

This article was originally published in CMI’s magazine, an exclusive member benefit. Find out more about joining our community.

CMI regularly creates checklists and guides to help you be at the top of your game. One you might be interested to read is How to Build Trust.

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