GDPR is a watershed moment for data protection; it leaves very little room for interpretation and has plugged the gaps created by new technologies in the two decades since the Data Protection Act first came into force in 1998.

It’s now so comprehensive that, for the first time, biometric data will be classified as confidential personal information. This is a significant change and will demand many organisations to reassess their data handling practices, especially those which make – or are planning to make – use of biometric identification and workplace monitoring tools.

These solutions have the potential to, and in some cases already are, providing managers with incredible insights into how workplaces are really being used and how workforces are performing. But this summer, a Wisconsin-based tech company made the news for ‘microchipping employees’ to enable contactless access to buildings, computers and cafeteria purchases. This story stirred controversy and escalated the global conversation around data collection, privacy, technology’s purpose and user consent.

So, what do business leaders and technologists need to do to ensure workplace technology develops in such a way that it carries the most benefits, while remaining compliant with the latest regulatory demands?

Setting the boundaries

First and foremost, the raison d’être of the technology needs to be addressed. There is a delicate balance to be struck between employee protection and fearless innovation, so for example, solutions should not require log-ins or user identification as these have the potential to be used to track employees. Equally, RFID chips and other biotech needs to be adopted with caution. GDPR will do much to draw the line in the sand over the use of technology that tracks personally identifiable data in Europe, but business leaders must also understand how this tech can and should be used to avoid breaching the rules.

Businesses that would most benefit from this technology include those moving into a new space and hoping to get the most out of it, those experiencing poor productivity and those planning to reduce real estate without negatively impacting staff. However, businesses have to solve the conundrum of engaging staff without necessitating personal identification. Mobile apps, third-party programs, unsecure deployments and demarcation of personal and business identities at work become ever so much more important in the light of new regulation.

This environment will favour approaches which fundamentally do not require human identity to provide value. Information should be available without subscription. Value needs to be created without having the need to store personal data.

Changing Workplace Trends

We are seeing an increasing number of more typically risk-averse sectors embracing non-allocated seating. The space productivity benefit of flexible spaces has been established for a while, however it is only recently with the advent of wireless working and increase in collaborative activities that this trend has become more prevalent. Workplace Fabric has recently worked with a multinational insurance brokerage and advisory company that wanted a workplace optimisation solution for its unaddressed office spaces. Shifting to an unallocated seating system could have been a stressful process, however, when employees were greeted by screens which displayed their familiar floor (and indeed, building) layout, overlaid with live availability data, they were able to easily identify and access vacant workspace.

Schemes of this sort are now proving popular worldwide across an increasing number of sectors. With this approach, ensuring all seating is unallocated, individuals simply cannot be tracked. This ensures that users feel comfortable with the tech and are able to make the most of it. This is a win-win for personal data protection as well as user experience.

Treading Carefully

Companies are sensibly taking a cautious approach to introducing workplace sensing technology. Adobe, the Californian software provider, adopted workplace occupancy sensors in its new London office following in-depth consultations with HR, legal and security experts, as well as employee committees. For Mark Bell, Regional Workplace Operations Manager EMEA at Adobe, “the overwhelming factor for us is that it’s completely anonymous.”

In this age of heightened concern around data privacy, and increasing legislative scrutiny, the answer must be anonymity. Technology that can measure, analyse and inform aspects of the workplace that matter to individuals on demand, across the portfolio and deliver contextual benefit to the user without having the need to personally identify them will ultimately be the ones that lead the way. This is not the technology of tomorrow, it exists and is already being widely adopted by users around the world.

By Raj Krishnamurthy, CEO, Workplace Fabric

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