About a year ago, in a widely reported story, journalists at British newspaper the Telegraph found little black boxes installed under their desks. The devices, which had “OccupEye” emblazoned on them, detected if employees were at their workstations. Not shockingly, writers and editors were suspicious, worried that bosses were monitoring their moves, even their bathroom breaks. The National Union of Journalists complained to management about Big Brother-style surveillance. The company insisted the boxes were intended to reduce energy costs, ensuring that empty cubicles weren’t overheated or over-air-conditioned, but the damage was done, and the devices were removed.
Sensors that keep tabs on more than temperature are already all over offices—they’re just less conspicuous and don’t have names that suggest Bond villains. “Most people, when they walk into buildings, don’t even notice them,” says Joe Costello, chief executive officer of Enlighted, whose sensors, he says, are collecting data at more than 350 companies, including 15 percent of the Fortune 500. They’re hidden in lights, ID badges, and elsewhere, tracking things such as conference room usage, employee whereabouts, and “latency”—how long someone goes without speaking to another co-worker.
Proponents claim the goal is efficiency: Some sensors generate heat maps that show how people move through an office, to help maximize space; others, such as OccupEye, tap into HVAC systems. The office-design company Gensler has 1,000 Enlighted sensors lining its new space in New York. Embedded in light fixtures, the dime-size devices detect motion, daylight, and energy usage; a back-end system adjusts lighting levels. The sensors also learn employees’ behavior patterns. If workers in a given department start the day at 10 a.m., lights will stay dim until about that hour. So far, Gensler has seen a 25 percent savings in energy costs. It estimates the investment—installation cost the company about $1.70 per square foot, or roughly $200,000—will pay off in five years.
Legally speaking, U.S. businesses are within their rights to go full-on Eye of Sauron. “Employers can do any kind of monitoring they want in the workplace that doesn’t involve the bathroom,” says Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute. And as long as the data is anonymized, as Enlighted’s is, some people don’t mind tracking if it makes work life easier. “It doesn’t bother me. It doesn’t feel intrusive,” says Luke Rondel, 31, a design strategist at Gensler. “It’s kind of cozy when you’re working late at night to be in a pod of light.” A majority of U.S. workers the Pew Research Center surveyed last year said they’d tolerate surveillance and data collection in the name of safety.
Up to a point, perhaps. The Boston Consulting Group has outfitted about 100 volunteer employees in its new Manhattan office with badges that embed a microphone and a location sensor. Made by Humanyze in Boston, the badges track physical and verbal interactions. BCG says it intends to use the data to see how office design affects employee communication. Outside critics have called the plan Orwellian and despotic—“It is a little bit invasive,” says Ross Love, 57, a BCG managing partner who volunteered—but the data collected is anonymized, and the company has pledged not to use it for performance evaluation.
Going even further, Enlighted is piloting a badge that lets a business track specific individuals via an accompanying app. CEO Costello says it’s more efficient to find a co-worker this way than it is to send a volley of e-mails and Slack messages and hope for a reply. The badges haven’t yet made it outside Enlighted’s offices, but there’s already interest from clients who want to use them to arrange in-person gatherings more easily, like a Facebook group come to life. “You get used to it,” Costello says. And if you don’t, try not to get too overheated about it and storm out of the building. You might just blast your colleagues with cold air.