In recent months, organizations around the globe have deployed a vast array of surveillance technologies to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the workplace. Even post-pandemic workplace monitoring systems may become standard office fare in the years ahead. For example, in October, a Gartner report predicted that 75% of workplace conversations will be “recorded and analyzed” by 2025. A recent Microsoft patent filing signals a similar shift toward a more panoptic office space as part of the new normal of work.
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“When you look at companies that are using some type of employee monitoring system and that is scraping emails, to use the camera on your laptop to take pictures of you, to how quickly you’re typing, all these sorts of things. There are more and more employers that are using this type of thing,” said Brian Kropp, chief of HR research at Gartner.
“In fact, 2020 is the year that we saw more companies using some version of that than a large scale employee survey to actually understand what is going on with their employees,” Kropp continued.
The recent Microsoft patent filing describes a monitoring system comprised of a number of monitoring devices to analyze meeting environments and participants to provide a score for these events as well as detailed feedback to help organizations improve future meetings. The patent abstract describes a system designed to observe and “collect quality parameters” about meetings using “quality monitoring devices.”
Together, this system quantifies “meeting conditions” and calculates a “quality score” for meetings. An “insight generation machine” uses a “graphical scheduling interface” to provide recommendations to improve meeting quality scores such as changing the meeting time, location, and invited participants. The patent includes an illustration depicting a hypothetical meeting use case (“meeting 100”) involving the aforementioned technologies.
This illustration shows a conference room with multiple meeting participants in place. The conference room also features “multiple meeting quality monitoring devices.” One such device includes a thermostat that records the temperature in a given room. As the patent notes, “air temperature has a bearing on human comfort level and can negatively affect how comfortable and productive the meeting is when too high or too low.”
The illustration also includes a camera noting that this device could be used to monitor which meeting invitees attended the event, analyze “body language and/or facial expressions,” as well as “the amount of time each participant spends contributing during the meeting.” The third monitoring device is a microphone situated above a bookshelf and a potted plant. This device could be used to identify “speech patterns consistent with boredom, fatigue, etc.,” as well as record the amount of time attendees speak during a meeting.
The fourth “quality monitoring device” is “a personal electronic device” and this unit is designed to serve as “a source of information regarding a specific meeting participant’s behaviors.” Example behaviors outlined in the patent include tracking “how much a participant contributes to a meeting [versuss] performing other tasks” such as checking their email, texting, or “browsing the internet.” This device could also track the total number of meetings individuals have attended on a particular day. The patent outlines a number of devices that could be used for this purpose including a tablet, laptop, smartphone, desktop, and more.
While the patent illustration shows an in-person meeting, it’s important to note that the patent also notes that the meeting 100 use case could also include meeting participants remotely attending “via a conference call or a voice over IP service.”
Increased workplace surveillance could lead to workplace fallout due to data privacy concerns among employees and data privacy groups.
“When you look at that whole swath of employee monitoring technologies that starts to become more out in the open and more aware of it, there will be backlash from employees and privacy advocates that their employers should not have access to that information,” Kropp said.