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Balancing Privacy in the Workplace of the Future

Tica Hessing • 12/11/2018

Picture the scene.

The year is 2040. You enter your office building and cameras discreetly recognise you, opening the security gates automatically and summoning the lift to take you to your floor. It’s a seamless experience; the building keeps you safe, but you’re never aware how. Meanwhile, a biometric data scanner scans your iris to verify your identity, while the sensors in the building have accessed information from your wearables. The building will assess how you are feeling, your heart rate, your hydration level, and whether you might be displaying early signs of illness. Sensors in the office building will feed data directly to the right building & workplace services so that the building can customise itself to the needs of the tenants directly.

Not only the building will keep an eye on you, but your fellow employees around you will do so too. You may well have heard about Glassdoor, the online platform where you can rate the company where you work. In the future, platforms like Glassdoor could exist where you are rated on a personal level. You could find yourself rated in the same way that you would as an Uber driver.

How does this make you feel? Are you properly equipped to handle this paradigm shift?

For many, this scenario sounds scary. A case of technology infringing on privacy. Nevertheless, if you look at the state of privacy today you realise how much personal privacy people have already relinquished in comparison to just 20 years ago. Every time we download a new app on our phone, we are giving unprecedented permission to strangers to access, photos, contacts, and personal details. 20 years ago, that was unthinkable.

When a demand, need, or even desire for a service is high enough, we are more than willing to relinquish more of our privacy.

Justifying Your Place

 In this future of constant monitoring and feedback, each of us will by default need to justify our worth. Take for example facility managers. They will need to exercise their own personal competitive advantage over robots. They will need to focus on emotional intelligence skills to deliver an exceptional workplace experience. Their reputation will have to speak for them, as feedback – positive or negative – will spread quickly in a connected world.

As previously mentioned, we will have more and more opportunities to rate the things, services and people around us. For landlords and co-working providers, it’s important to realise that the digital nomads, solopreneurs and desksurfers will be more likely to try out a new building for the first time if it has good customer reviews. Creating trust online is the key to attract new visitors and retain tenants.

Biometric scanners, emotional surveillance systems and personal feedback systems are no longer the fever dreams of science fiction fans. They’re already with us. Here are some early examples:

China

In China surveillance in workplaces is literally getting inside workers’ heads. Lightweight sensors embedded in workers’ hats or helmets wirelessly transmit the wearer’s brainwave data to a computer. Then, artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms scan the data, looking for outliers that could indicate anxiety or destress. When the system issues a warning, the manager could ask the worker to take a day off or move to a less critical post.

Netherlands

In the Netherlands, a company called KeenCorp measures employee engagement continuously by analysing internal emails and digital chat. The KeenCorp Index highlights when groups of people are feeling good and when less so, through software that recognizes patterns and detects tension in text. According to KeenCorp: “we do not track individuals; their privacy is 100% protected. We look at group movement and trends instead. We recommend companies to be fully transparent and share the results with everyone so that a regular and open conversation can take place.”

Australia

Amazon is set to open its second distribution centre in Sydney’s southwest; a 43,000 sq m industrial facility in Moorebank. As part of their commitment to efficiency, Amazon has patented a wristband that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into being more efficient.

Amazon isn’t the only global business getting in on the action. Workday, an on‑demand financial management & human capital management software vendor crunches around 60 factors to predict which employees are likely to leave. And Microsoft, through their Cortana software, are offering smart speakers in meeting rooms that can automatically transcribe the meeting conversation. Everything that employees say can be saved and found in the system.

Finding the Goldilocks Zone

In the Corporate Real Estate industry, we are focused on creating the best workplace experiences for today and into the future. However, a great workplace experience means something different to everyone. The better we can read someone’s mind and body status the closer we can come to achieving seamless experiences tailored to personal preferences and needs.

On our way to 2040 technology such as emotional surveillance systems and biometric scanners will be more and more accessible as innovation continues. But how far can we go? How far can we go to enhance personal and individual experiences without risking the state of privacy of tenants, clients, and employees?

It is essential that the Corporate Real Estate sector gets involved in the privacy debate, especially as buildings increasingly mark the intersection of our physical and virtual worlds. It is an exciting time of innovation, but our excitement should be mixed with caution.

Ultimately as an industry we need to be bilingual. We must educate and familiarise ourselves with the trends occurring outside of our industry and consider the social implications of technology on the people who we are creating workplace experience for. After all, it’s not just business, it’s personal.

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