Working under a tech-fueled microscope in the coronavirus era

As businesses reopen, monitoring tools promise to track employees and customers in ways few people would have accepted. But there will be consequences. …

This article is part of a VB special issue. Read the full series: AI and Surveillance.

As employees across the United States return to workplaces after months of coronavirus quarantine, many of the changes will be physical and obvious — face masks and clear protective shields, social distancing protocols, and stricter limits on customer access. But technology is quietly enabling a second layer of “defenses” that will likely have even larger impacts on modern workplaces: employee surveillance tools.

In the sort of meta-irony that science fiction authors would have found delicious, the fear of a physical virus has led employers to adopt productivity surveillance apps that barely differ from computer viruses, along with workplace safety monitoring technologies that only George Orwell might have considered inevitable. Users spent decades firewalling their PCs against keyloggers, activity-monitoring background processes, and clandestine video recorders; now employers are turning to such tools to watch over their workers. Some tech companies are suggesting that businesses go further, monitoring both employees and personal contacts for COVID-19 using private tracing databases.

It’s easy to understand the underlying business concern: Companies want to protect themselves and their employees against risks, specifically including declining worker productivity and the prospect of larger-scale infections as employees return to offices. But in the wrong hands — and with questionable tools — the new workplace magnifying glass can become a laser, burning unreasonably micromanaged employees and businesses alike.

Salesforce’s is just one example of a platform that promises office-specific coronavirus contact tracing, promising to turn workplaces into COVID-19 infection and exposure data collection sources for “public and private sector leaders,” allowing those “leaders to gather the data needed to monitor and analyze employee and visitor health and wellness.” Even if a company’s motivations for health monitoring are entirely benevolent, it’s creepy that the service is marketed to help private organizations track the health status of visitors, employees, their relatives, and “interpersonal” contacts. Today, many people (and some governments) don’t trust Apple and Google’s anonymized contact tracing system, so why would anyone feel comfortable being tracked by various corporate databases with amorphous privacy guarantees?

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Salesforce's offers businesses tools to individually track COVID-19 exposures of employees and visitors.

Above: Salesforce’s offers businesses tools to individually track COVID-19 exposures of employees, their relatives, and contacts — but is this really a wise idea?

Image Credit: Salesforce

Companies that maintain private COVID-19 databases may face legal ramifications as well. Thanks to asymptomatic carriers, unreliable tests, and sketchy infection reporting, there are serious concerns over whether false positives and negatives are leading tracing systems to simultaneously under- and over-count infections. It’s no stretch to predict individual and class-action lawsuits after employees lose hours or jobs over supposed COVID-19 exposure that didn’t actually affect their ability to work. Additionally, companies with private databases that don’t act appropriately on infection data might be held responsible for failing to protect employees from “known” harm.

Businesses interested in keeping their workplaces healthy might better focus on worker safety instead. New safety tools such as AI workplace cameras promise to automatically measure worker distance or detect the lack of personal protective equipment. This may sound like 1984‘s Big Brother, but employees might not object to monitoring systems that use computers rather than humans to observe what’s happening, even if they introduce constant video recording into workspaces. Similarly, employees might embrace location-monitoring wearables and apps if they aid with personal conveniences, such as easing access to locked areas or physical activity tracking.

In the mid-pandemic world, companies aren’t wholly or even mostly focusing on health and safety — they’re also concerned about productivity. Without physical offices, people “working from home” may be doing all sorts of things that aren’t productive, and at a minimum, productivity monitoring software raises the specter of a manager looking over one’s shoulder to be sure work is actually being done. But overreliance on monitoring — whether it’s handled through software or constant meetings and check-ins — can have the opposite impact on worker productivity, stifling employees to the point of protest.

A boss accustomed to physically patrolling cubicles may feel uneasy transitioning to directing employees from remote home offices; it’s easy to understand why such a person might mandate remote computer monitoring tools, then become engrossed in peering at individual employee screens, checking time-on-task metrics and issuing noncompliance warnings. Add this passive monitoring atop mandatory team and individual check-in meetings, plus whatever collaborative chat system the company uses, and it still might resemble a traditional corporate office on paper.

Yet as reports of employee work-life balance frustration have stacked up during the pandemic, it’s clear that excessive oversight is leading to employee alienation. Accustomed to flexibility to accomplish their targets, self-starters are getting distracted by endless meetings and various forms of managerial monitoring. Monitoring software can now deliver clock-in/out times that are “accurate” down to the second, and alerts when employees have work apps in the background rather than the foreground. However, human beings tend to hate having their schedules managed like robots, and they will likely be out the door whenever better employment opportunities arise again.

In the post-COVID-19 era, employers will have to adapt to a lot of new realities, but one that’s increasingly clear is that the mere existence of new workplace health, safety, and productivity surveillance tools doesn’t mean that every employer should use them all — or even use carefully selected ones on full blast. An office-specific contact tracing platform might look great but introduce unexpected productivity and legal risks, just as an app that promises to track employee clock-ins or work may wind up leading to angry gaming of the system. It goes without saying that seeking too much workplace control can lead to the loss of good employees, either preceded or followed by customers.

As tempting as it may be to search for technological silver bullet solutions to employee challenges, enterprises hoping to recover quickly from the pandemic should look at the bigger picture. Rather than overrelying on monitoring technologies, smart companies should seek humane work-life balances that reduce the need for surveillance, freeing everyone — workers and managers alike — to make better use of their business hours. But they should also feel comfortable adopting modern tools that aid worker safety while respecting their human dignity, as these solutions will likely stand the test of time and not create legal challenges for their earliest adopters.

Read More: VentureBeat's Special Issue on AI and Surveillance
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