The tracking of employees is a touchy issue. We've wondered before if tracking employee fitness is healthy or creepy, or whether your boss should be able to track you 24 hours a day. Privacy is the issue that grabs the headlines, but sometimes the practice provides really useful information.

At the Daily Telegraph in London, sensors were recently installed on seats and desks of journalists. According to BuzzFeed:

Journalists were baffled by the unannounced appearance of the boxes. Staff resorted to googling the brand name and discovered they were wireless motion detectors produced by a company called OccupEye that monitor whether individuals are using their desks.

The employees were outraged, complaining that management could now tell when they went to the bathroom. (They used stronger words you'll have to read on BuzzFeed.)

guardianNUJ: National Union of Journalists (Photo: The Guardian)

British newspapers being what they are, The Guardian jumped on the story, covering the objections from the National Union of Journalists, which complained that “Workers have very strong privacy rights and these must be protected. The right to be consulted on new procedures governing such data is enshrined in law. The NUJ will resist Big Brother-style surveillance in the newsroom.”

Within a day the Telegraph had pulled the units, which they claimed were installed to monitor energy-efficiency. Meanwhile the manufacturer of the units issued a long news release that included this statement:

OccupEye sensors monitor the presence of people within a space but they do not identify individuals… OccupEye is used successfully by blue-chip corporate users and small district local authorities alike and, notified beforehand of a deployment with its many benefits communicated (we always recommend that our clients advise their staff in advance), both users and space occupiers embrace the technology positively. Despite the impression that may have been formed as a result of the recent media coverage, there is nothing intrusive or sinister about OccupEye and no deployment has ever had anything other than a positive impact on both a user organization and its staff.

But maybe this really isn't about productivity

Consider how office design is changing all the time, as the technology we use and the way we work changes. Few are changing as rapidly as newspapers. Many are downsizing offices and changing the type of space they occupy. Managers (and designers) would love to know how much time people actually spend at their desks to determine how many desks are needed.

This isn't a new concept. In North America, Herman Miller has been doing it for years with its Space Utilization Services. It's a lot more accurate:

Research shows that, across industries, workstations are not occupied 60 percent of the time; conference room seating is rarely used to full capacity; and private offices are unoccupied fully 77 percent of the time. Sometimes companies already have an idea of their space utilization because they’ve done bed checks. But bed checks aren’t always accurate — or even close. One company’s bed-check report showed a 67 percent dedicated space utilization, but the wireless sensors we installed as part of our space utilization service showed the actual utilization was just 38 percent.

Herman Miller did it with “unobtrusive sensors which ... temporarily attach to the underside of chairs and detect when each is occupied. After analyzing the data, Herman Miller recommends space-allocation strategies that better support how a particular space is actually being used.

sensorsWhat's that under my chair and my desk? (Photo: OccupEye)

When I saw this technology five years ago, I asked about the privacy issue, and the company claimed that it wasn’t an issue; they made it clear they were aggregating information on office use and not monitoring individual work habits.

Consultant Brett Belding was, I believe, the first to say “work is a thing you do, not a place you go.” No doubt management at the Telegraph is monitoring the thing that they do, with words published and deadlines met, just as my editors do. As can be seen in the photo at the top, they're also all in view of their bosses sitting on the balcony overlooking them. But the Telegraph didn’t tell employees what was happening, and they got what they deserved.

Newsrooms are also changing rapidly. I was in the Guardian’s new one last year and was astonished at how crowded it was; I was also in the Globe and Mail’s and saw huge desks designed with those corners for big old monitors, half of them empty. Companies must deploy their resources better, and this kind of technology can help. I don’t think the Telegraph was wrong in installing these units and trying to figure out what’s being used and what isn’t. I suspect that in this Internet of Things era, it will be built into every chair as a matter of course in a very short time. But still, the company did a dreadful job of communication.

poll on privacyPoll on privacy: I am in the 2.11 percent crowd. (Photo: Snapshot from poll)

Of course when I said this last May, I added a poll in which readers could answer whether it was OK if a company was open and transparent about collecting data similar to this. As you can see above, a huge majority of readers disagreed with me and thought it was intrusive and that people were entitled to privacy, while only 2.11 percent agreed with me.

So maybe I'm not the best person to be writing about information versus privacy.

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.

Sensors in your seats: Good management or Big Brother?
There is useful information gathering and there is spying. It can be hard to tell them apart.