biometric badges
© iStock Photo: Shironosov
From company issued Fitbits to staff ID badges equipped with microphones, the field of employee biometrics has developed a great deal over the past few years.

While many companies track workforce data, this has traditionally been basic HR information like headcount, succession plans and competencies. Now, with wearable biometric technology companies can start to dig a lot deeper into how their staff operate on a day-to-day basis.

Naturally the first thing that comes to mind when discussing this subject is the "creep" factor around your employer knowing not just where you are during the day but the possibility of cross-referencing it to your state of health at the time. So could your boss connect a heavy Thursday night to late attendance on Friday morning?

This is where vendors, employers and even governments have to ensure that the right guardrails are put in place to ensure that personal privacy isn't being threatened by this practice.

This should include measures to ensure that biometrics information isn't being abused; that the data is secure and only being seen by the relevant people; ensuring that employee participation isn't obligatory; and using the information for positive reasons such as increasing inclusion and not simply for benchmarking.

So what does biometric tracking look like in the enterprise, who is using them, what are the benefits and drawbacks?

What is biometric tracking in the workplace?

Basic people analytics has been around for a while, with major vendors like Microsoft keen on giving employees better metrics to measure themselves with products like Delve, an app which provides employees with feedback on productivity. We even saw CEO Satya Nadella demo the software on stage in London in 2015, with the CEO showing that he spends too much time on email and not enough with staff.

HR software has tended to focus on digital metrics, such as email usage or time spent in meetings. Now, newer vendors like Humanyze are looking to incorporate physical world data into the equation, such as where employees spend their time during the workday, who they talk to and stress levels.

Humanyze is an MIT spinout that supplies badges and software to organisations that want to understand how their employees interact with one another in the physical world. The badges look like a normal employee ID badge but are equipped with RFID and NFC sensors, bluetooth for proximity sensing, infrared to detect face to face interaction, an accelerometer and two microphones. The badges 'talk' to beacons set up around the office to detect proximity.

The microphones only monitor tone and volume, not content. CEO Ben Waber told our sister title Techworld that everything is processed in real time and nothing is recorded, because "from a privacy perspective it is the wrong thing to do," he said.

The company then combines this physical world data with data from work systems (primarily Microsoft) to pull in calendar and email usage data, not content. By combining this digital communications data with data from the physical world managers using Humanyze dashboards can get a "holistic view of what goes on in the company", Waber says. Managers can start to see how they spread their time between people, how different teams talk to one another, if meetings are inclusive enough and how cohesive groups are.

This may sound like a micromanagers dream, but Waber says the overall aim is not to shame employees but for "quantifying the value of employees having coffee together in the age of of working from home."

Employees can also access their own personal dashboards to see "what you do, how you compare to the team average. If you want a different role you can look at what they do. You can start to see how you compare, so benchmarking within your company."

There are other vendors focusing on cutting down on stress levels in the workplace using biometric tracking.

Earlier this month LinkedIn and Stanford University's mind and body lab collaborated with the makers of a wearable breathing tracker called Spire to prove that "workers who wore a Spire tracker -- a small, pebble-sized device that clips to a belt buckle or bra strap -- experienced significantly less stress and negative moods, as well as more productive and "focused" work hours than non-Spire users," the press release reads.

LinkedIn's global wellness manager, Michael Susi, said they "used Spire to make tangible improvements to things that can seem fleeting: focus, distraction, and productivity. Lowering stress while increasing productivity is crucial to the success of any business, and to be able to do both of those with one device is rather powerful."


Unsurprisingly PwC found that "more than half of employees would consider wearing a smartwatch from their employer if their data was used to improve things such as working hours, stress levels and where they can work from." The problem then tends to come down to trust that your boss won't use this data against you.

Concerns over workplace monitoring and biometrics came to a head last year when Daily Telegraph journalists objected to their desk time being monitored.

Part of the issue here was around consent. According to Buzzfeed the staff were not asked for consent to be monitored at their desk and only discovered what the devices were after "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."

In the UK, Citizens Advice states: "Your employer can legally monitor your use of the phone, internet, e-mail or fax in the workplace if: the monitoring relates to the business; the equipment being monitored is provided partly or wholly for work; and your employer has made all reasonable efforts to inform you that your communications will be monitored."

However, "some employers monitor their workers without informing them that this is happening, for example, by use of hidden cameras or audio devices. This is very rarely legal."

Humanyze CEO Waber said that regulators will need to catch up as these new data streams enter the workplace. "You need government regulation on this to ensure that people opt in for this stuff.

"US privacy law in the workplace is thirty years old and we need to have strong privacy protections to make it easier for the industry to grow. For example, HIPPA regulations, people understand the protections, they are confident that they are protected and I think we need something similar to that for workday privacy. Making sure that regulation starts to catch up will take time."

For example, when an organisation contracts Humanyze they will come into the office to brief staff on how the system works and what is, and isn't, recorded. Everyone signs a disclaimer and there is no obligation to take part.

When asked if not taking part could be damaging from a career perspective Waber didn't miss a beat. "If you tried to force people you would have a negative impact on the workforce that counteracts any positive effect the tech has," he said.

Employees that don't want to participate can wear a "fake" badge, however he says that generally Humanyze gets 90 percent participation, "so we are generally quite good at communicating the value of this and make sure we do it the right way," he said.

Enterprise customers

Unfortunately these concerns, paired with sensationalist headlines, means that employers are reticent to discuss these projects with the press. Computerworld UK couldn't get an enterprise customer to discuss biometric tracking and Humanyze won't name any of its customers.

One of the few published enterprise case studies involved BP trialling Fitbits with its North American employees to encourage a healthier lifestyle back in 2014. It reported such impressive results as an 8.6 percent decline in health risks, and a reduction in overall healthcare spend of 3.5 percent. Fitbit even offers its own Group Health programme in three tiers for corporate clients like Diageo, Autodesk and Box.

Biometrics being used as part of corporate wellness programmes will only become more prevalent. ABI Research predicts that by 2020 there will be 44 million workplace wearable devices integrated into wellness programmes.

Mike Weston, CEO at London-based data science consultancy Profusion told the Financial Timesback in 2015 that: "I think there's an inevitability that it will gain ground, and there's a backlash risk that will follow if the data get abused."