Some employers were already hoovering up staff information – from biometric data to tracking peoples’ movements. COVID-19 will see this trend explode.
Over the last week, my colleagues have learnt more about me than many of my friends would know. They know what I look like in my pajamas. They know my home address. They’ve seen what my former teenage bedroom looks like (I’ve temporarily moved back home amid all this mess) and they know about the eccentric instruments my family is hoarding in the aforementioned former teenage bedroom.
Usually, I wouldn’t have been inclined to share such information. But we’re not operating in usual times. It’s been only a week since we’ve started working remotely and I’m only two hours away from most colleagues, but it feels as if we’re worlds apart.
This week has seen many of us tear down the privacy barriers demarcating our personal and professional worlds and, quite literally, invite our colleagues into our homes – often going beyond what is required to feed the essential human need to connect.
When I first wrote this story for the March edition of HRM magazine, none of us could have imagined just how drastically our lives would have changed by the time that magazine hit desks. At that time, COVID-19 was just something occasionally mentioned in the news. Our supermarket shelves were fully stocked, our healthcare system was running business as usual and we were allowed to hug our loved ones. Back then, we were looking into the blurred boundaries of work/life integration simply because cutting edge HR seemed to be trending that way.
Today, COVID-19 is the focus of almost every employer in Australia, and it has redrawn privacy boundaries that we thought were untouchable.
Governments are also getting more involved in people’s private lives, and in some cases surveilling their every move in an effort to prevent the spread of the virus.
In an article for the Financial Times, author Yuval Noah Narari says technology has made it easier than ever before for governments to track people in order to track the spread of COVID-19. In China, that meant requiring people to report on their temperature and health, closely monitoring phones (to see who people may have infected) and using sophisticated facial recognition software.
Obviously China is an authoritarian state, but more democratic countries are also insisting on draconian measures. The bargain we are all making is that we will give up freedom and privacy now in order to secure the health of ourselves and the wider community. While in the short term this feels comforting, Narari issues a warning about the long term impact of this crisis.
“Not only because it might normalise the deployment of mass surveillance tools in countries that have so far rejected them, but even more so because it signifies a dramatic transition from ‘over the skin’ to ‘under the skin” surveillance,’ he writes.
“When your finger touched the screen of your smartphone and clicked on a link, the government wanted to know what exactly your finger was clicking on. But with coronavirus, the focus of interest shifts. Now the government wants to know the temperature of your finger and the blood-pressure under its skin.”
He poses the question of whether in the future we would all accept a biometric tracker that would give authorities real-time information about our health. It might mean you can be told immediately if you are ill, but it also means giving up a lot – your temperature and heartbeat also betrays your emotional state. Edward Snowden, who knows a thing or two about privacy, shares Narari’s concern.
But even if you wouldn’t want your government to have this information, would you allow your employer to? Some people already do.
Oil and water?
There are two views of how our work and private lives interact. The more traditional view is that they are oil and water. They don’t truly mix. You have a work-life balance, not integration.
The other, more modern vision is that pretending that our work and private lives can be completely separated is foolish. Business thinkers and academics like Dr Stew Friedman – a keynote speaker at last year’s AHRI National Convention and Exhibition – have long promoted the idea that the right approach is to accept that work and life blend together, and structure both accordingly. In this view, you strive for work-life harmony.
Last year Friedman told HRM that an increase in labour market competition was a driving factor for the amalgamation of the two worlds, as employers clamber over one another to attract the ‘best of the best’. But there’s a big difference between a worker choosing to harmonise their work and private lives and an organisation encouraging them to do so.
Blood, sweat and personal data
Some companies want to capture as much information as they can about you – from your biometric data to what you’re doing with your screen time – and this raises an interesting question. What place does privacy have in a modern workplace?
There’s a difference between an employer’s obligation to protect sensitive employee information that they need to have one file, such as employee contact details, and an employer that goes out of its way to collect extra data on staff, like their biometric data.
You might assume most people are against sharing their biometric data (fingerprints, retina scanning, blood samples etc.), but the Australian Community Attitudes to Privacy Survey 2017 report, which has been collecting data on this topic since 1990, challenges that thinking.
In 2013, 71 per cent of people were concerned about giving away their biometric data to enter a club, nightclub, bar or hotel, but that number dropped to 58 per cent in 2017. When it came to using biometric data to access a place of work or study, the number of people expressing concern decreased from 55 per cent to 46 per cent in the same time period.
Among those who remain concerned is Jeremy Lee, an employee whose unfair dismissal case caught media attention earlier last year. Lee was terminated from his role at a Queensland sawmill for refusing to offer his fingerprint as part of a company-wide biometric data collection process designed to improve its payroll accuracy.
Lee won his case on appeal, with the Fair Work Commission deciding the employer did not have sufficient mechanisms in place to protect its employees’ right to privacy.
Lee and the many other employees who object to workplace data collection show there is a significant part of the workforce who remain opposed to giving away private information to employers. But it will be interesting to see if that shifts now that governments and health authorities are collecting the medical data of millions of people across the world in an effort to quash COVID-19.
Outside the boundaries
There have been companies embracing an integrated work and home life for years now. These organisations are likely experiencing less whiplash than the rest of us; their people are used to working this way. They already have the appropriate infrastructure to enable a seamless transition to remote working.
“There’s a historic argument that what happens in your private life should be left behind the moment you step through the door at work. But we know that’s not true. No one is genuinely capable of that,” says Mike Weston, managing director of advisory firm SMTW.
In 2015, Weston – then the CEO of data science consultancy firm Profusion – joined his staff of 31 in a bold experiment. For 24 hours a day, for 10 consecutive days, everyone who opted into the experiment would have all their data tracked. They were asked to wear a Fitbit that could only be removed for charging.
Everything was monitored, from heart rate and location to online browsing history. The data was aggregated to avoid anyone feeling as if they would be judged for their individual results and only one staff member opted out mid-way through the experiment.
“Workplace analytics are becoming a fact of life. As we increasingly digitise the tools we use to perform our work, it is inevitable that more and more scrutiny will be available on individuals’ working habits. This is a natural extension of time recording – like clocking in at factories after the industrial revolution kicked off. But now we have enormously more capability to capture and interrogate information.”
“Employers need to think about how they can better demarcate between work and home so life doesn’t become one big whirlwind of noise.” – Jonathan Stone
During the experiment, Profusion’s staff also answered a short questionnaire three times each day. It asked questions around what they were eating, what they were drinking, what they were doing and how they were feeling. In all, they collected around 400 data points per person.
“It certainly helped us to understand where the peak stress levels were and at what time of day, and at which location, these occurred. It turned out that one of the biggest drivers of stress was team members’ private lives: one of the spikes in the data was later identified to be someone taking a pregnancy test!”
There are examples where taking an interest in employees’ personal lives, such as their sleep or physical wellbeing, makes sense from a workplace health and safety standpoint. People operating heavy machinery, for example, can be seriously harmed if they experience accidental micro-sleep. But could you make a case for non-WHS related data collection?
“There are oft-cited examples, particularly when measuring engagement, where data is being gathered at an aggregated level. However, outside of safety, where individual rather than aggregated data might be necessary there are not many other examples where an organisation would make something like this a specific policy,” says Jonathan Stone, partner, people advisory, talent and performance at BDO Australia.
“Organisations have a significant impact on the health and wellbeing of their staff, and the initiatives that are implemented require much more than fruit bowls and monthly seminars on rotating wellness topics. Employers need to think about how they can better demarcate between work and home so life doesn’t become one big whirlwind of noise. Employers can play an important role in helping you to switch off, manage your physical and mental health including sleeping better… if that is what you want.”
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Using data for good
There are examples even more extreme than the Profusion experiment, such as the Japanese wedding planning company Crazy Inc. which placed monitors in staff’s mattresses to gather data on how well each employee was sleeping, rewarding top snoozers with free cafeteria meals.
This level of involvement in staff’s bedtime is troubling to many but, for organisations that forefront consent and are careful not to be intrusive, the results can be rewarding.
At the end of Profusion’s ten-day experiment, Weston and his team knew that the biggest stressors were occurring out of hours. They had to think of creative ways to address this without overstepping the line and intruding on employees’ personal lives.
One simple tool the company implemented was to offer to pay for 75 per cent of a gym membership for all staff in an effort to decrease stress levels.
“There’s a historic argument that what happens in your private life should be left behind the moment you step through the door at work. But we know that’s not true.” – Mike Weston.
Drawing a line
Whether your workforce is comfortable with blending their personal and work lives might hinge on your industry. For Weston and his data science company, it made sense, but he’s quick to be able to identify the gap between what can be monitored and what should be monitored.
Weston refers to a 2015 case in California where a woman claimed she was unfairly dismissed after being “scolded” for deleting a phone app that was tracking her movements 24/7.
The employee had agreed to be tracked during work hours only and sued the company for invasion of privacy, violations of the California Constitution and California Labor Code, wrongful violation and unfair business practices. The case was settled before it went to court.
Beliefs about privacy can also be generational or cultural. Weston uses the example of a former colleague he worked with in Denmark.
“She comes from this background that goes back to the time of Nazi Germany and all the stuff that was happening behind the iron curtain in that part of Europe, where surveillance was an incredibly potent, negative thing,” he says.
When one of his team members was leaving the company, Weston asked her if, with that individual’s consent, they could access his emails to ensure a smooth handover.=
“It wasn’t even up for discussion. The answer was quite simply, ‘No, we cannot do that.’ The Danish approach was that it’s completely off limits. If you go back to 1956 with the Treaty of Rome and European Union being set up, one of the fundamental rights there was the right to lead a private life.”
Digital natives are closer to the other end of the privacy spectrum, says Weston.
“That shift from resistance to surveillance and the definition of what freedom is (that being privacy), to living life in full view of everyone is a really fundamental one.”
With workforces of 2020 being made up of multigenerational, multicultural people, it’s important that employers consult with all staff before implementing a policy or program that would touch on their private lives in any shape or form.
An interesting point that both Weston and Stone make is that humans often behave differently when they know they’re being watched, so it’s worth thinking about how this could affect staff output and the way they socialise both during and out of work hours.
Stone refers to a US company which creates badges for employees to wear which monitors all communications, including their tone of voice and the way people speak with certain colleagues.
“The badges enable you to see all the social interactions and provides you with a view of your organisational dynamics, who is working collaboratively, who are the influencers, who are working in silos. But you do have to think about the fact that when employees know that everything is being monitored, will this positively or negatively impact their behaviour within the workplace?
“Psychological safety has been shown to be a critical condition for organisation performance and is a belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes – an individual is embraced for bringing their quirky selves to the workplace. Whatever organisations decide to trial and or implement at the forefront of their minds should be the question ‘will this impact the psychological safety within my organisation?’”
Where does that leave us?
A crisis can change a society. It creates new norms.
If you asked me three weeks ago if I’d be comfortable sharing intimate details of my personal life with my employer, I probably would have said ‘no’. But back then, I wasn’t experiencing the same levels of stress and uncertainty that I am now. None of us were. But if my employer came to me now with a solution to help me sleep better, to loosen that tightness in my chest or to get me up and moving more often, would I take it? I sure would. If that required letting them step a little further into my personal life, would I still do it? Absolutely.
I’m sure I’m not alone in that boat.
A version of this article appeared in the March 2020 edition of HRM magazine. It has been rewritten to take into account developments spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic.
As part of AHRI’s ‘Working through COVID-19’ webinar series, experts will speak on the importance of resilience during these trying times. Register your interest for the online event on the 16th of April. AHRI members can attend for free.