Unions Warn Against Companies Using AI to Monitor Staff

office worker being spied on by co-worker

Trade union bosses say artificial intelligence surveillance systems that rank workers’ productivity could damage their mental health. 

Numerous UK companies have begun implementing artificial intelligence (AI) systems to monitor and track their workers’ productivity. The software allows bosses to track staff behaviour in real-time and gathers data on when and who they email, who accesses and edits files, and who meets whom when.

The gathered data is controlled by management and workers have no right to see what information has been gathered about them. Trade unions have expressed concerns over this new trend for using algorithms to manage workers, saying that it creates an atmosphere of distrust.

Critics of worker AI monitoring say that constant surveillance could negatively impact workers who may fear judgement from the algorithm and thus feel they are unable to take breaks or spend time in creative thought that will not be logged.

A 2018 survey by the Trades Union Congress found that the majority of employees were against AI work surveillance, including keyboard stroke tracking, mood monitoring via facial recognition, and wearable devices tracking their location.

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Ursula Huws, a professor of labour and globalisation at the University of Hertfordshire, said: “If performance targets are being fine-tuned by AI and your progress towards them being measured by AI, that will only multiply the pressure.

“People are deemed not to be working if they take their hands off the keyboard for five minutes. But they could be thinking, and that doesn’t get measured. What is this doing for innovation, which needs creative workers?”

However, supporters argue that it could reduce bias in the workplace by removing subjectivity from management decisions. Furthermore, they believe it will increase productivity, benefits workers by ensuring they aren’t overworked and drive structural change for the better.

Already a monitoring system, Isaak, tracks the actions of 130,000 individuals in the UK and abroad, which ranks their attributes. It can compare activity data with qualitative assessments of workers from personnel files or sale performance figures to give managers a detailed picture of how behaviour affects outputs.

Isaak has generated data on more than one billion actions, it then uses this data to identify “central individuals within a network” to more efficiently allocate workload and responsibilities, “ultimately improving the overall workplace environment and reducing stress and overworking”.

Ankur Modi, the chief executive of Status Today, the creators of Isaak, said that the system is designed to provide a “well being analysis” and can identify overwork, for example, excessive working outwith office hours. But Modi admitted that in the wrong hands the system could be abused to focus solely on productivity while ignoring employee well being.

According to Status Today, insurer Hiscox, IT firm Cisco, London estate agents JBrown and five UK law firms have all used its software to keep tabs on their workers.

“If one salesperson is performing well and you can see overwork and another isn’t performing well and isn’t overworked, that could be enough to start a conversation,” Modi said.

The TUC’s general secretary, Frances O’Grady, said: “Workers want to be trusted to do their jobs. But this kind of high-tech snooping creates fear and distrust. And by undermining morale, it could do businesses more harm than good.

“Employers should only introduce surveillance technologies after negotiation and agreement with the workforce, including union representatives. There should always be a workplace agreement in place that clarifies where the line is drawn for legitimate use, and that protects the privacy of working people.”

Experts predict that society will move increasingly towards a “precision economy” whereby more aspects of life will be measured and tracked. The Royal Society of Arts (RSA), believes that over the next 15 years, people will increasingly face discrimination as a result of this trend.

For example, insurance premiums will be determined by data from wearable devices and hospitality and retail staff will be tracked for time spent inactive. Certain measurements will be used to decide what jobs people can and cannot do, which would see those with low scores consigned to more menial lower paying jobs.



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