Microchipping Employees is the New Frontier of Ridiculous Workplace Micromanagement

November 22, 2018

Sometimes, on the Argentus Blog, we deviate slightly from our bailiwick of talent management in Supply Chain to cover other workplace culture topics. We’ve written recently about work from home policies, salary transparency, and even the question of whether companies should count employees’ commuting time as work time (on the last score, our takeaway was that if you’re a white-collar employer counting time instead of results, you’re kind of missing the point).

Any great workplace finds a balance between driving efficiency and productivity, and providing employees’ with opportunities to grow and lead fulfilling lives. High performance and humaneness aren’t as mutually exclusive as you might think. When both are working in concert, when employees are both motivated by recognition of their needs, and empowered by progressive technology and process, that’s when the magic happens.

But if a company decides to add a piece of technology that foregoes the human side to extract that little bit of extra productivity, a workplace can become toxic pretty fast. It can give a short-term boost, at the cost of completely torpedoing a workplace culture.

In late 2017, we wrote about a trend in this space: how more companies are taking micromanagement to the next level by using software that tracks workers’ every keystroke. These solutions measure employees based on how many documents they open, how many emails they send, and how often they tab between applications – as opposed to, you know, measuring employees based on revenue, cost savings, innovation, or other old-fashioned metrics. (Pardon our sarcasm). Some of these surveillance software solutions even use employees’ webcams to photograph them every ten minutes, just to make sure they’re sitting at their desks.

A strong workplace culture is built on trust. If you don’t trust your employees, they won’t trust you. It’s hard for them to feel like a partner, and it’s hard for everyone on the boat to row in the same direction.

Now, a report in The Guardian raises the prospect of an even more alarming intrusion by employers into their employees’ lives: several firms in the UK are marketing microchip implants that would track employees’ comings and goings from offices. These devices are about the size of a grain of rice. They cost between ~$120 and ~$440 per person and are implanted in the skin between the thumb and forefinger. 

It’s a sci-fi concept (Black Mirror, anyone?) – but it might become real for some companies soon. The Guardian’s Julia Kollewe reports that some firms are already microchipping their staff. Providers like Sweden-based BioHax are gearing up to implement this technology at legal and financial firms, with the justification that companies can microchip their employees to improve security.

 The sell on these technologies is that microchipped employees don’t have to carry physical ID cards – and companies can restrict access to offices and sensitive data only to microchipped employees. But many in the UK are raising the alarm that these technologies actually represent a deep intrusion into employees’ privacy, and a new frontier in micromanagement.

We happen to agree. Once you have the ability to track an employee with an implant in their body, the whole concept of work/life balance is pretty much off the table. It’s better to measure results than how long someone is in the office. What’s more, there’s nothing this technology provides that a physical ID card, or other form of secure entry, doesn’t. And how inconvenient is it to carry an ID card, anyway?

Let it be said: we’re almost always interested in technological solutions to boost engagement and opportunity in the workplace. We think that technologies like augmented reality and the Internet of Things (IoT) can make employees more productive, without sacrificing their privacy. But technologies like this – beyond giving everyone the creeps – are just another excuse to do something that’s already prevalent: micromanagement.

And micromanagement just doesn’t work, no matter the fancy technology behind it.

The more companies do to try to control and micromanage employees, the more they miss the point. Motivation is more important than supervision. If you treat your employees like children or chattel, they won’t treat their jobs as opportunities. They’ll treat them as just that, jobs. They won’t contribute, and they have no incentive to innovate. What’s more, they’ll leave. Talent attraction and retention is one of the key strategic differentiators for companies in 2018. Companies who fail to take this seriously – instead trying to squeeze out an extra ounce of productivity like the last bit of toothpaste from a tube – lose out, every time.

There are legitimate ways that emerging technologies can make the workplace more productive, while empowering employees.

This isn’t one of them.   

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