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Office Desk Sensors Can Cause Employee Anxiety

Experts say HR should be ready to explain the necessity of such devices

A woman peeking over a desk in an office.

​Companies worldwide have attached special sensors beneath their employees' desks to monitor office space usage and reduce real estate costs.

But mistrustful employees have balked at OccupEye, the small black monitoring devices under their workstations. Some have claimed invasion of privacy; others have wondered why their employers are watching them.

However, Neil Steele, OccupEye's head of sales and marketing, told SHRM Online, "OccupEye is not about monitoring employees. OccupEye is about real estate."

Here's how it works:

Sensors are attached under desks to detect "the presence of a human being through a combination of body heat and motion," Steele said. "None of the OccupEye suite of products identifies individuals." The data from these workspace utilization devices is transmitted from the devices to the web and reported "to those [employees] occupying the space as well as building and facilities managers," he said.

U.K.-based data management company Cad-Capture said its OccupEye technology has made companies more energy efficient and helped them save millions in real estate costs.

That hasn't made people less leery of the devices.


[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Workplace Monitoring and Surveillance]

The Creep Factor

At Barclays Plc in London, "managers were peppered with queries when investment bank staff in London discovered" the OccupEye boxes stuck beneath their workstations, Bloomberg reported recently. Several anonymous Barclays employees told the news site the devices tracked how often employees were at their desks.  

Lloyds Banking Group Plc in London uses similar devices.

"The sensors aren't monitoring people or their productivity; they are assessing office space usage," Barclays said in statement e-mailed to Bloomberg. "This sort of analysis helps us to reduce costs, for example, managing energy consumption or identifying opportunities to further adopt flexible work environments."

Steele said OccupEye users "across six continents, including some of the largest and most prestigious in the world, have made tangible real-estate savings running into the hundreds of millions of dollars" by using the technology.

That hasn't kept employees from being creeped out by the monitors, however. OccupEye's boxes were removed the day they were installed at the London-based The Daily Telegraph after employees balked at the "Big Brother-style surveillance."

Said Steele: "The only negativity we ever experience is born from uninformed misperception; anyone willing to spend 30 minutes reading up on [this type of] sensor technology or industry-leading guidance on best practices around space utilization and smart building management would clearly have zero reason for concern."

People Don't Like Being Watched

Whether the devices are to analyze the use of office space, to increase energy efficiency or to monitor people's whereabouts, "it all comes down to trust," said Henry Albrecht, CEO of Limeade. Limeade is a corporate-wellness technology company in Bellevue, Wash. "If employees don't feel trusted, they don't feel valued and won't be engaged at work. If you're pushing … tools that make people feel like you're always looking over their shoulders, you're eroding trust, which ultimately isn't good for your business."

HR, experts say, should convey to employees exactly what the devices are monitoring.

"There is no physical way for the system to technically detect individual persons by identity," Steele said. "OccupEye is all about promoting efficient and smart use of space. Organizations need to communicate this message clearly, and staff need to become educated on current best practices in property management."

HR should consider the company's culture, too.

"Company culture is going to be the primary driver of responses to this technology," said Brian Petro, a lead JavaScript talent agent with in San Francisco. "Employees that have developed a sense of trust with their employer are open to trying new things."

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