Cutting Costs or Watching Workers?

“Managing by walking around” is an old expression describing one no-frills way that supervisors can keep their finger on the pulse of the workplace: By simply strolling around the office to check in on employees and the status of the projects they’re working on.

Managers at British banking and financial services firm Barclays are apparently taking a different approach; one that saves them the steps and instead relies on technology to keep tabs on workers.

As Bloomberg recently reported, Barclays has installed devices that track how often bankers are at their desks, using heat and motion sensors “to record how long employees are spending at their posts,” and providing managers with a multi-colored dashboard that shows which workstations are unoccupied.

The devices—called OccupEye, and made by U.K.-based Cad Capture—also enable supervisors to analyze workspace usage trends, and weren’t intended to be used for monitoring people or their productivity, according to a Barclays statement emailed to Bloomberg.

Rather, they’re designed for “assessing office space and usage,” according to the bank. “This sort of analysis helps us to reduce costs, for example, managing energy consumption, or identifying opportunities to further adopt flexible work environments.”

I can’t help but wonder if Barclays employees are a bit skeptical about the purpose of these devices. While the bank says “there have been no official human resources complaints,” managers were “peppered with queries when investment bank staff in London discovered black boxes stuck to the underside of their desks in recent months,” according to several Barclays employees who spoke to Bloomberg on the condition of anonymity.

Employees at other British companies, however, have made their feelings pretty clear upon discovering the same sensor systems in their workspaces.

Last year, the Daily Telegraph removed the OccupEye devices the same day they were installed there. Originally intending to keep the sensors in place for four weeks as part of developing plans for making their offices more energy-efficient, the British newspaper immediately scrapped those plans when its employees (and the country’s National Union of Journalists) complained of feeling like they were under surveillance while at work.

Such concerns aside, Bloomberg found at least one other British bank, Lloyds Banking Group, using sensors similar to those in place at Barclays, with an eye on cutting costs by eliminating extraneous office space.

“It’s important to keep office and working space under regular review,” Lloyds spokesperson Ross Keany told Bloomberg. “While we use motion sensors in some of our sites, we also make sure to engage colleagues and seek their feedback on what would work best.”

Soliciting employee input seems like a smart move in this situation. These types of tools might truly be intended to trim office space, cut back on energy use and, ultimately, save money. Still, it’s not hard to imagine workers—in any environment—feeling just a bit like Big Brother is watching when these sensor systems are put in place. We’ll have to wait and see if U.S. employers begin to adopt similar technology, but—if the Daily Telegraph rollout is any indication, at least—careful and continual communication with employees would be advised throughout the process.