HR Technology

By Dawn S. Onley Jul 1, 2005
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HR Magazine, July 2005 New technology allows companies to monitor employees' whereabouts to improve productivity.

A year ago, Ciro Viento had a major problem on his hands. As operations manager of Automated Waste Disposal Inc., a commercial, industrial and residential waste management business based in Danbury, Conn., Viento was watching his employees log hundreds of hours of overtime each week, and he had no way of accounting for the time. His employees were garbage collectors or sales staff who spent most of their time out in the field.

At first Viento tried snooping on the sales staff.

“I had a supervisor follow two salespeople for a week,” he recalls. What they learned was that the sales employees were “getting lost during the day” at a local restaurant or over at a friend’s house during work hours, but were billing the company for overtime they never worked.

Viento decided to take action.

He installed a global positioning system (GPS), manufactured by At Road Inc., in the fleet of 200 garbage trucks and sales vehicles that service western Connecticut and two counties in New York. Since then, he has a full picture of his employees’ whereabouts via the Internet-based system.

The receivers, half the size of a cigar box, are located underneath the trucks’ dashboards.

Although the receivers are out of sight, Big Brother really is watching.

“We saved an exorbitant amount of overtime” costs, Viento said. For example, drivers earning roughly $20 an hour and running 22 front-loaders, prior to GPS, logged 300 hours of overtime at 1.5 hours’ pay per week. Today, that overtime on the same vehicles has been cut down to the 50- to 70-hour range.

Employers’ use of tracking technologies to monitor their workforces has grown significantly in the mobile work fields. It is popular with waste management companies, construction companies and other employers whose workers spend the bulk of their time in vehicles responding to calls, such as electrical mechanics and plumbers.

Viento says he has also fielded calls from linen distributors and bakeries asking about the technology Automated Waste Disposal uses.

While interest in this technology is surging, experts warn employers to keep its use pinned to business purposes only and to communicate with employees how and why the technology will be used.

Applications

GPS is a real-time, global radio navigation system that is formed from a constellation of 27 satellites and their ground stations. The U.S. military developed GPS nearly 30 years ago to give the military better situational awareness. The systems are now used by the military and the private sector to monitor a person’s physical location.

GPS satellites transmit signals to the ground stations. The technology has taken off so much that it is estimated that by 2006, four out of five new cars will be outfitted with GPS, according to the National Workrights Institute, an advocacy organization in Princeton, N.J.

Simply put, GPS lets a user locate either another person carrying a receiver or an object in which a receiver has been installed.

Indeed, newer technology has given companies more options for tracking employees’ whereabouts. Xora Inc., a Mountainview, Calif.-based company, develops GPS-based chips for cell phones and software for servers. Officials at the company have seen their business soar. In just 18 months of running the software, they now have 35,000 subscribers.

Sanjay Shirolé, CEO of Xora, says the chips allow workers to clock their time directly from the phones so they don’t have to come into the office. Once the phones are on, supervisors can track an employee’s location from GPS maps that monitor latitude and longitude. If the phones are paid for by the company, employees can’t argue that they are victims of right-to-privacy violations.

The product, GPS TimeTrack, features geographic and image displays, and its main goal is to improve productivity.

“Dispatchers can see on the map where the closest technician is out in the field, and they can push a job to that particular employee,” Shirolé explains. “It improves the overall visibility for managers to figure out where the bottlenecks are. In the past, they would have to wait until the end of the day or the end of the week to get a list of all the jobs that were done by a particular employee.”

The city of Chicago deployed about 800 of the TimeTrack units for their employees in mobile departments, including building inspectors, cash collectors, and parks and recreation workers.

However, before the city of Chicago signed off on the phones, union leaders negotiated certain concessions, including the ability for users to shut off the phones when they are taking lunch or when they have completed their workday.

Employees at Automated Waste Disposal can’t shut off the receivers in the trucks. One employee took a truck to his local auto body shop to have a fuse taken out of the receiver, but when the receiver was shut off, supervisors immediately noticed that this employee’s truck had a malfunctioning device.

The employee was notified, and the truck was brought back in to get the system reinstalled, Viento says. After trying the stunt a second time, the employee was terminated.

Viento points out that his employees turn the trucks in at the end of the day, at which time the monitoring stops.

Privacy Concerns

Despite all the benefits, such as increased productivity, that workplace managers are extolling, there are still privacy concerns related to deploying the tracking devices. “Global Positioning Systems technology in the workplace poses a serious threat to employee privacy and sense of dignity,” according to a report issued by the National Workrights Institute. “Many times people take for granted the inherent right to go throughout the world undetected.

“Such monitoring reduces employees to robots; cogs in a highly managed system designed to maximize worker productivity for every second they are at work,” the report adds. “With the pressure to increase productivity leading to greater use of GPS monitoring, the very humanity of the American employee is becoming even more threatened as the workplace devolves even further into an electronic sweatshop.”

Privacy concerns first erupted with the increased use of corporate e-mail and the Internet. Courts have ruled in employers’ favor for monitoring how employees use corporate-owned technology for personal use.

Still, employers must walk a tightrope when signing on to new technologies. They must balance their right to know where, and how long, an employee is working with the employee’s right to privacy, according to Rich Wokutch, head of the department of management at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg.

“Monitoring on the job vs. off the job are two different issues,” says Wokutch, who is an expert on business ethics. “It’s an ownership issue. Companies have interpreted it that way.”

Wokutch says employees who work for companies that deploy tracking devices need to take some responsibility to ensure that their breaks, such as for lunch and other off-the-clock time, are just that—breaks.

“A worker who wants privacy should not be using company-owned material for communications,” he says. “The individual who stops for lunch can leave the company-owned cell phone in the car. He should not have to rely on the company to turn it off. I would encourage people to take some sort of responsibility for themselves.”

And businesses need to be up front with their workforces about any policies that could be seen as infringing on employees’ personal lives.

“It’s a good thing for the company to announce what” the policies are and what monitoring technologies the company uses “so that people know that up front,” Wokutch says.

At Automated Waste Disposal, Viento says his employees are well aware of the tracking devices. But Viento adds that he prefers to look at it as managing the business, not just tracking employees.

“They know they’re being watched. They understand it. They understand it’s all about money,” Viento says. “I told them to put the shoe on the other foot [and consider how they would feel] if this was their business and this was their money. For the most part, they agree with it.”

Technological Advances

Several military bases have also stepped up their use of tracking technologies, in the wake of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, to monitor access to bases and installations in the United States.

Rob Smith, chief wireless architect at Telos Corp. in Ashburn, Va., says his company implemented a pilot program using WiFi Watchdog technology developed by Newbury Networks of Boston. A wireless local area network architecture was installed at numerous military bases for location-based access and tracking. He declined to name the military service that is using the units for security reasons.

The technology, which works on handheld computers and cell phones, includes sensors that were placed around the perimeters of the bases. Users log on to the network via the handhelds, and they can be tracked through a central console throughout the coverage space.

The Newbury technology uses the access control addresses on military-issued phones and handheld devices, and it can alert superiors to a user’s whereabouts.

WiFi Watchdog’s sensors locate wireless users inside a defined geographic area, like a military base. Users are then verified through a Newbury-provided RADIUS (Remote Access Dial-In User Service) server, which provides authentication and accounting of remote users, and RADIUS-compatible access points. After the user is verified, an operator tracks his or her location and allows or prohibits authentication.

“Users do not even know that they are being tracked,” Smith says. “They were told they needed to provide information to the central tracking entity of all their radio identifications and MAC addresses [a hardware address for each location] and if they did not provide that they would not be allowed access to the network. They do not know how extensive the rule set is where they can or can’t have access.”

But Smith says security was the No. 1 focus of the military in deploying the devices. For example, if a user only has access to a maintenance shop on base, WiFi Watchdog will not give him access to a network in a command building.

“It’s being used as a security tool. Is it also being used to track productivity? I won’t say it’s not. I won’t say it is,” Smith says.

He adds that the product would know something is amiss if someone repeatedly tries to gain access to a network he is not privileged to have access to. “After so many attempts, it times out. If you are a hacker, it will continue to deny you and will trigger alarms on the access point level and software central console level.”

The WiFi Watchdog system can be deployed in private sectors as a way to track external and internal wireless users’ authorized and unauthorized use of a company’s wireless networks. It identifies rogue users by location and time of use. It prevents outside intruders from penetrating a company’s wireless network as well as legitimate inside users from unwittingly associating with neighboring wireless networks.

In the next couple of years, experts say, more-accurate tracking of wireless users’ locations, whether inside a building or outside, will become the norm.


Dawn S. Onley is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer who specializes in technology issues in private-sector and federal workplaces.

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