Is AI workplace monitoring helpful or harmful?

Clock cards and sign-in sheets have been replaced by algorithms that can predict working habits

Whether we work in an office, factory or warehouse, our every move and action can be monitored and recorded. How long do we sit down? How much time do we spend moving? Where do we go? How long are our tea breaks - and our toilet breaks? Who do we email, how frequently and even, what do we write in those emails?

That's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what can be monitored with regard to our working lives. Keeping an eye on workers is nothing new. Clocking on and off using a card put into a simple machine to record when workers arrived and left was just one of the many methods deployed before the digital revolution. However, with motion sensors, activity monitors, analytics and artificial intelligence in the frame, it's possible for an employer to know far more about their employees than ever before, and even predict behaviours.

Unforeseen complications

Asking whether this kind of monitoring is helpful or harmful is to turn a complex and multifaceted issue into a simple binary question - and that's always particularly useful. In fact, for every potential benefit of workplace monitoring, a new, unforeseen complication is also created.

"Implemented correctly, technology can be a very important tool for both employers and employees," argues Katherine Mayes, programme manager for cloud, data, analytics, and AI at techUK. She cited positives like helping employers avoid bias by basing managerial decisions on merit rather than subjective factors like whether or not they like a staff member. However, she adds that "the increased use of technologies like AI are raising a number of profound legal, social and ethical questions".

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That's because using AI in the workplace to monitor staff isn't simply a matter of watching people do their jobs - akin to a 'time and motion study' type approach. AI systems do more than count time. They apply algorithms to draw conclusions by themselves, and it's this that can be a particular cause for concern. Imagine an AI monitoring system in the workplace which sees a dramatic turndown in keyboard activity from one person at a particular time. Is that person being lazy or is there something else going on?

Training and expectations

That might be is a relatively simplistic example, but as Nick Maynard, senior analyst at Juniper Research explains, "the difficult part is making sure that the data used to train the system is free of bias and gives a true reflection".

"This may represent a challenge when trying to explain how systems have flagged a lack of productivity, particularly when it comes to potential disciplinary issues," he adds.

Theo Knott, policy programmes manager for BCS, The Chartered Institute for IT, argues that "it is entirely feasible for an office worker to be away from the keyboard for an hour and be having productive conversations or doing work mentally".

The question then is whether AI can ever infer correctly the difference between what we might flippantly call 'thinking' and 'slacking'. Even if a worker is 'slacking', is it possible for an algorithm to determine whether that downtime is ultimately beneficial or harmful to productivity?

Taking breaks is not only important for our health, but it's also a great way of figuring out answers to complex tasks. Perhaps a chat about the movie you saw at the weekend around the water cooler is precisely the distraction a thorny problem requires.

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The output quality from workplace monitoring systems will almost certainly improve over time as the quality of data on which AI's algorithms are based becomes more robust. However, for Theo Knott, we should remain cautious about the rollout of such technology.

"It is likely that accuracy would improve rapidly as technology is improved and datasets become richer," he argues. "Whether the errors on the way to this point are worth it is questionable, but the key is ensuring that things are transparent, so that wrong decisions can be easily challenged."

Transparency matters

The General Data Protection Regulation sets the ground rules for the use of personal data in the workplace, making it clear that employees should know what data is being collected and why, as well as setting out requirements for data retention.

A key point here is maintaining transparency with the workers themselves. As Matt Creagh, employment rights officer for the Trade Union Congress, explains, "it's important to remember that working people have a right to privacy, and this right extends to the workplace." He continued, "Tracking and surveillance software should only be used with the agreement of a workplace union or the workforce."

And this isn't just a matter of law - it is one of good practice too. As Katherine Mayes points out, "employers have a responsibility to engage with staff on this debate and work together to carefully determine how AI can be used to support and empower the workforce. If businesses get this wrong, they risk undermining workplace morale which could lead to staff resignations."

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