As businesses reopen after the pandemic locks in, their primary responsibility is to ensure the safety of employees who return to socially distant workplaces; a second is to restore, or even improve, their productivity.
However, companies must be aware of a third longer-term duty: to build trust between the employer and the worker. The integration of intrusive and persistent technological surveillance of the virtual and physical workplace would undermine this objective.
Among the tools currently deployed are: facial recognition software, specifically to detect if people are complying with new regulations on the use of masks; staff tracking lanyards and badges, such as those already used by some hospitals, which can also be reused to impose social distancing or hygienic practices; thermal imaging cameras to detect personnel at high temperatures; and software to record the activity of homeworkers online.
Similar concerns apply to employer surveillance of national efforts to track, test and monitor coronaviruses. A group of academics warned last month in an open letter about the “mission shift” in government contact tracing applications that could lead to “unprecedented surveillance of society as a whole”. The drift towards widespread espionage is more of a threat to companies because they often have the sole discretion to apply technological solutions, subject to weak transparency and control.
During the crisis, employees could legitimately decide to exchange their private life – by giving up their personal health data or by consenting to the use of portable devices – in order to help their employer guarantee their safety.
Employers may, however, be tempted to centralize this information. They could return data about the actual or online location to personal performance. At best, this would encourage presenteeism. At worst, it would revive Frederick Winslow Taylor’s unobtrusive time and motion monitoring techniques, forcing expensive new monitoring on workers, whether at home, in the office or in the factory.
Legislators, regulators and some technology providers are aware of these risks. To some extent, they are mitigated by existing privacy legislation, such as the EU General Data Protection Regulation, which emphasizes data protection “by design and by default”. U.S. Republican senators have introduced a bill that would require companies to offer staff the right to opt out of data collection and require them to “delete or anonymize all personally identifiable information when it is no longer used for business purposes.” public health emergency Covid-19 “.
Technology offers a way to reassure staff about their personal health and safety and to monitor the risks of overwork and stress. But employers should distinguish between using data to identify risks to others (a staff member who tests positive for Covid-19, for example) and to learn about the underlying health conditions. that workers should only have to disclose voluntarily. They should not use this information to discriminate against individuals.
It would be a step back if the crisis ushered in a permanent return to team micromanagement. Research suggests that sustained staff monitoring increases stress and undermines performance. The safeguards that should apply to government contact tracing technology should also apply to businesses. In particular, a sunset clause should oblige them to offer staff the right to withdraw once the pandemic emergency has subsided and to insist on a regular review of data collection. Otherwise, measures to help workers stay healthy and take over businesses may well make them sicker.