The monitored office: Dystopian future workplace or efficient business of tomorrow?

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Biometrics and wearables are making their way into the workplace as employers modernise access control and time-keeping. But with no legal framework in place, does this trend benefit businesses or violate employees’ rights?

The pressures facing businesses today are enormous. The economic crisis, competition in the marketplace and the continued rise of the data-driven culture mean employees are expected to work smarter and faster than ever before.

Against this backdrop, it is little wonder that technology that promises to help people do just that is generating excitement in boardrooms across the world. From Coca Cola to Apple and hundreds of companies in between, biometric and wearable technology is being explored to make businesses run quicker, safer and in a more cost effective way.

Early adopters suggest these types of technology are having a positive impact on performance but critics warn that a surveillance culture can lead to stress, sickness absence and higher staff turnover. So where should the line be drawn? And what can you do if you don’t fancy working in an office where Big Brother is watching you at all times?

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Biometrics on the rise

In February tech consultancy Gartner projected that the number of organisations using biometric authentication for mobile devices would rise from five percent to 30% by 2016. As biometric technology has improved over the last decade, the use of fingerprint, face, voice and hand authentication has emerged as a more efficient alternative to more traditional access control methods such as cards, PINs and passwords.

“Biometrics are used across all vertical markets to solve the identity management challenge by linking physical and digital identities,” says Elaine Bliss, senior vice president of marketing and product management at Crossmatch, a leader in biometric-based identity management tech.


The adoption of fingerprint biometrics has been accelerated by industry giants such as Apple and Microsoft


“Businesses are using biometrics to secure access to networks and applications so they know for sure who accessed what, when. They are also using biometrics to reduce fraud in payroll and transactions. Biometric solutions empower businesses to mitigate risk, drive productivity and improve service levels.

“Among the different biometrics, fingerprints are the most mature and dominant biometric used in commercial applications. The adoption of fingerprint biometrics has been accelerated by industry giants such as Apple and Microsoft, who have incorporated fingerprint biometrics directly into their products.”

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Vast potential for wearables

Wearable technology has been pioneered commercially over the last few years by the likes of the Nike Fuelband, Jawbone UP and the much-vaunted Google Glass. Now research and anecdotal evidence suggests that this kind of technology is beginning to find its way into offices and factories around the world.

Research from open cloud company Rackspace, which surveyed over 4,000 people in the US and UK in 2013, found that a small number of early adopter businesses (six percent) are already providing wearable technology devices for their employees. They also found that there is scope for the use of wearable technology in business to increase, with a third of respondents stating that they would be willing to wear devices offered by their employer.

“There are two types of wearable technology – wrist mounted and head mounted,” says Duncan Stewart, director of research for technology, media and telecommunications at Deloitte in Canada. “Wrist mounted wearables are predominantly used to authenticate who you are.

“At Deloitte, our consultants used to spend a lot of time filling out time sheets on their PCs and mobiles to map their movements around the world. Now we’re using wrist mounted time trackers, the jobs and clients people are working with is logged automatically.”


If you talk to people in the medical, security or materials handling industries they’re terribly excited


However, it is head mounted wearable technology that offers the most exciting potential for development, giving users the benefit of hands-free working, augmented reality and the ability to take pictures and video whilst they’re on the move.

“Imagine if you’re driving around a warehouse on a forklift truck, you’d be able to wear a device that could tell you exactly where the pallet you’re looking for is and what is stacked in front of it,” explains Stewart. “You’d also be able to record what you were doing so that, for instance, if one of the boxes was broken when you took it down you’d be able to prove it and demonstrate that you carried out your work with all due care.

“The potential is enormous but the appetite varies by industry. In the banking sector, the view is that wearable technology would not benefit either the customers or the businesses. However, if you talk to people in the medical, security or materials handling industries they’re terribly excited. They expect to see wearable technology become widely used within five years and adopted as best practice within ten.”

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The next frontier

People are already working on the convergence of biometric and wearable technology to provide the ultimate authentication device. Last year Bionym created the Nymi bracelet, a wearable powered by a person’s unique cardiac rhythm that can be used instead of swipe cards and passwords to help users sign into computers and open doors.

“Your heartbeat is consistent, which makes it different from an iris or fingerprint which needs to be scanned,” says Lee Odess, general manager at Brivo Labs, which is partnering with Bionym to develop the technology. “This makes it a frictionless form of identification, since you don’t need to stop to be verified.


The next step would be to offer the consumer personalised information


“We are now beginning to see technology that allows people to present themselves to spaces and in response, spaces know what to do with this knowledge. This means that, while opening doors and unlocking passwords are a starting point, the next step would be to offer the consumer personalised information, such as the specific seat they are assigned to at a baseball game or that a concession stand several feet away that might trigger a peanut allergy.

“It’s not just about a signing in. It’s about bringing attributes about yourself so that you can have a curated experience.”

Big Brother is watching

While the possibilities opened up by biometric and wearable technology are exciting to many, they are a source of concern to many others. The UK’s biggest trade union, UNISON, has warned of the dangers of what it calls a surveillance culture and is rallying members on how to fight the introduction of such technologies in their workplaces.

“UNISON believes that workers should not be subject to unnecessary or intrusive monitoring at work,” the union said in a factsheet sent out to members. “A surveillance culture in the workplace can lead to increased stress, sickness absence and staff turnover. Biometric monitoring, particularly for the purposes of checking on time-keeping, clearly qualifies as an over-the-top and unnecessary measure.


UNISON believes that employers should aim to develop a relationship with staff based on trust – not excessive monitoring


“There is also the question of the kind of relationship that employers want to have with their staff. The process of finger-printing is understandably associated with criminality in the public mind. So when employers start fingerprinting their own staff it sends out a very negative and confrontational message. UNISON believes that employers should aim to develop a relationship with staff based on trust – not excessive monitoring.”

Aside from issues of privacy the use of wearable technology could, if handled badly, have further negative impacts upon the companies that are employing it, according to Duncan Stewart.

“If you have employees going around with wearable cameras will that lead to people spying on each other?” he says. “That could be a problem but the biggest thing would be the potential threat to intellectual property (IP). Lots of sensitive processes take place behind closed doors. If everyone is recording everything then it could easily lead to leaks that could cost companies billions of dollars in lost IP.”

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Keeping it legal

As there are no direct laws governing the use of biometrics and wearable technology in the UK, employers would have to obtain the consent of their staff to record and process biometric data in accordance with the Data Protection Act 1998. But what can you do if you’re placed in a position where you feel uncomfortable by the technology your boss is asking you to use?

“Employees are likely to be suspicious that the information will be used for other purposes and employers would need to explain why they are looking to impose change, how it will affect staff and how the information will be used,” explains Chris Tutton, employment partner at law firm Irwin Mitchell.


The development of biometrics and wearable tech will no doubt outpace the development of workplace rules


“An employer should consult its workforce before introducing this type of new technology and ensure they deal with all concerns in a reasonable manner. If this does not allay the employees’ concerns, they should discuss these with their employer. Employees have the right to raise a grievance about their working conditions and employers must deal with these appropriately in accordance with the ACAS Code of Practice.

“If the business mishandles the process and for example, adopts a heavy handed approach, an employee might be able to claim that this has undermined his trust and confidence in the employer and decide to resign and claim constructive unfair dismissal. The employee would need to have at least two years’ service to bring such a claim, but if successful, he could be awarded up to twelve months gross pay.

“The development of biometrics and wearable tech will no doubt continue to outpace the development of legislation and workplace rules. Whilst the legal framework slowly catches up, workplace norms will have to recalibrate as these technologies become all the more pervasive.”


Image two courtesy of Google and image four courtesy of Jawbone


Futurist Jack Uldrich: Abundance will make us redefine what leisure time is

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Our workplaces have already been revolutionised by technology, but could it allow us to work closer to home? We speak to to futurist Jack Uldrich to find out how work technology will change our culture and lives

Q: How is technology going to change the way in that we work?

From my perspective, the really big change and the thing that is difficult to understand is how all of these technologies, from computer processing power, data storage, bandwidth, mobile devices, the internet of things, they’re not just individual technologies.

They are going to converge in some really unexpected ways and as a futurist – no-one can predict the future, I don’t claim to – but I really think we’re on the verge of the next work-related revolution.

The analogy I use is Gutenberg’s printing press. Gutenberg’s genius wasn’t that he created that out of thin air.

His genius was that he took four existing technologies, he took the line press, movable type, ink and paper and he converged those four into a technology that revolutionised the world. And when I think about computer and advances in computer processing power that is one technology.


We’re going to start trading the idea of ownership for access to certain products and technologies”


The next one is data storage and that is cloud computing, so that is the second one. The third one is mobility and the number of smart devices that are going to continue to come on the planet, and then the fourth one is high speed internet access.

You begin playing around with those four technologies, I am just convinced that there is going to be a new platform from which we conduct our work. We’re already seeing just with cloud.

As a result of the four trends I just talked about – computer processing, power, mobility, storage – it’s transferring the automobile industry in some unexpected ways.

Daimler, the German automobile company, has discovered more and more young people in urban areas don’t want to own a car and they don’t really need to own a car anymore because they have smartphones and there’s GPS technology that allows them to locate a car that allows them to rent it for a couple of minutes at a time, so they are trading ownership for access to a vehicle and it is all of these technologies that are facilitating that transformation.

And, I think that sort of points to one of the subtle ways that business is going to change and customer behaviour is going to change. We’re going to start trading the idea of ownership for access to certain products and technologies.

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Q: Given they are very distinct at present, how do you think these technologies will converge?

I think just in the context of work that this idea that we’re going to do our work anywhere in the world.

Absolutely anywhere, but we’re going to be able to collaborate with our colleagues and our co-workers who are also anywhere on this planet.

It’s going to have a really deep and profound impact on how we think about work. The amount of physical retail space that is dedicated to work environments is astounding, and then the impact on energy and climate.

Because of all these extra buildings and driving to and from them, powering them and cooling them, it is an extraordinary cost on society. Is that really the way we need to do work in this new environment?


I really think we’re going to figure out how to make a lot more efficient use of the spaces that we need”


We’re already seeing the early shifts, but I really think we’re going to figure out how to make a lot more efficient use of the spaces that we need and what we’re going to come to discover is that we don’t need as many physical spaces as we do and that’s going to have an impact on real-estate, it’s going to have an impact on how we then travel to and from work because we then might not need to be doing as much of it.

Then the question comes about what do we do with all that excess space and here’s where as a futurist I just start on speculating on what some scenarios might be.

Because other technologies are getting better, LED lighting for example, sensor technology and advances in vertical farming or hydroponic farming, we might be able to convert a lot of buildings and grow produce in those buildings, so instead of growing things out on the countryside or on the other side of the world and then shipping those bananas or whatever to London, what happens if we can actually begin to repurpose those buildings to grow a fair amount of our produce in our local communities?

To me that is a sort of interesting possibility because that then further reduces the stress on the climate because we are not shipping bananas all the way across the ocean and were not putting them on trucks and delivering them to the grocery store and cooling them and storing them and packing them, we’re really growing them as close to the consumer as possible.

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Q: What will this mean for the difference in our work and life balance?

To tell you the truth, as a futurist I always do this paradoxically. Most people plan for a future, because we’ve grown up in a world of relative scarcity, or we always think that things might be going away so we will just price them accordingly and the wealthy will be able to afford it an everyone else is out of luck, but I really think that in the future the biggest cultural challenge is going to be abundance.

We’re going to have an abundance of clean sustainable energy. I think we’re going to have an abundance of high-quality affordable education as a result in advances in online education and MOOCs (massive open online courses).

Healthcare in many cases is going to get significantly better to prevent disease from ever occurring in the first place, so I am really optimistic about these technologies.


Abundance is going to drive some really strange cultural shifts


But then I think the biggest cultural challenge is what then do we do in a world where our health is really good for a long period of time and I have access to the world’s best professors and I can get credit for those and I can teach myself new skills at virtually no cost and I am living in a house where I don’t have to really pay anything for energy as I am producing the energy myself.

Abundance is going to drive some really strange cultural shifts and I think a couple I see are how we have re-think what leisure is, today too many people view leisure as they’re done with work and they go and binge watch a Netflix series or go to a movie or a sporting event.

Those things are still going to exist, but I don’t think they are enough to provide people with deep meaning in their lives and so how do we create meaning with the excess time that we have, I don’t know the answer to that, but I think that culture, how we answer that question, will define what our culture is like.

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Q: Will the work day change from a 9-5 concept, and how will more leisure time affect us?

One hundred years ago – at least in the US and I suspect in the UK – 50% of all Americans either lived or worked or were closely related to the agricultural industry, they lived or worked on farms, they didn’t think about work-life balance just because it was all together.

They worked and lived at the same time and in the same place, on the farm. It has really been the last hundred years that has been the historical anomaly.

That’s when we have suddenly lived in one place and then physically went to a different place to work, that’s what is odd.


We are going back in history where we are going to do a lot more of our work from our homes    


We are going back in history where we are going to do a lot more of our work from our homes and so I actually think that the whole question of work-life balance is going to fade away and we’re just going to acknowledge that work is part of life, and life is part of work and we will do work when we need to and we will have leisure when we don’t need to do work-related activates.

From the futurist perspective I think the question is going to fade away.

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Q: Will there be any downsides this change in the way we work and resulting new technology?

The transition is going to be difficult and I don’t mean to downplay it. When I look at a lot of these technological advances in robotics, 3D printing, artificial intelligence, is there going to be job displacement? Absolutely. And is it going to adversely affect people? Yes it will.

But during the industrial revolution that was a difficult transition period as a lot of people moved from rural areas to urban environments, it wasn’t easy but for the most part society in most parts handled that transition relatively well.

There were riots, there were strikes and strife but for the most part, in the industrial developed world, it has been managed well and so it is going to be a difficult transition but I think at the end of the day humans really are creative and we’re going to figure out how to navigate in to this new future and to figure out how to mould life and work into something that is sustainable for ourselves, our communities and ultimately the planet.


Images courtesy of Tropinina Olga / Shutterstock.com