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The work ID, long used for gaining entry to the office, now has a new job: tracking how long people stay.

Bosses are stepping up office surveillance this fall, vowing to use regular reports from badge systems to determine how many people are adhering to the return-to-work policy. Facebook parent Meta Platforms told employees in August that managers will review badge data monthly to assess whether those assigned to an office are meeting a requirement to spend at least three days a week in-person; repeated violations could result in disciplinary action, including termination.

Google notified workers that badge-swipe data could be a way it enforces its in-office policies. Other companies, from Amazon to JPMorgan Chase, also keep tabs on attendance through badges or other methods.

“We know who’s assigned to an office and should be working in an office,” said Bob Pragada, CEO of the engineering and consulting firm Jacobs, which employs more than 60,000 people and has used badge-swipe data to monitor its office-occupancy levels. The company tracks office attendance in the aggregate, and not on an individual basis, a spokeswoman said.

For decades, badge systems served mostly as a security measure. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the technology proliferated, spreading from high-end buildings in major cities to offices nationwide. More recently, new technological developments—and the shift away from physical cards to mobile access—have made it significantly cheaper and easier for employers to extract and analyze data, said Matt Kopel, co-CEO of SwiftConnect, a building-access software provider that works with dozens of Fortune 500 companies.

To gauge whether employees are actively working in the office—as opposed to swiping in and leaving—Kopel said companies are drawing on other data points. More are using systems that require users to swipe their mobile phones to print documents, he said. Multiple swipes are another sign of a full day at the office.

“If you don’t have two entries a day, you’re either working really hard or you’re not working,” he said.

Companies generally have wide legal latitude to monitor workers, and some are turning to more granular sources of data such as IP address information transmitted via Wi-Fi, ceiling-mounted heat sensors and weight-triggered sensors attached to chairs that can track workplace occupancy levels, executives and technology providers say.

Some companies have told workers to document their whereabouts. In April, the operating committee of JPMorgan sent employees a memo asking them to log when they are out of the office—whether for personal reasons like vacation or sick days, or for business travel or client meetings.

The memo also said the bank was working on attendance tracking related to business travel and client meetings, such as leveraging corporate travel data or email calendars.

“Tracking attendance is not only important to manage hybrid work schedules but also for real-estate, resiliency and security purposes,” the memo said.

TikTok now uses an internal tool called MyRTO that monitors employees’ office attendance based on badge swipes and asks workers to explain their absences, according to a person familiar with the technology. TikTok, owned by the Chinese technology company ByteDance, has told many employees to work in its offices at least three days a week, though some teams may decide to come in more often.

A spokeswoman for ByteDance said employees aren’t required to explain absences, but are provided an opportunity to submit an adjustment about why a return-to-office target couldn’t be met, such as attending a client meeting. The New York Times earlier reported on the existence of the tool.

Companies have tried for months to get people back to offices, with mixed success, leading to a protracted tug of war between workers and employers.

According to real-estate services company CBRE’s survey of employers, 57% of companies are now tracking attendance. Among those conducting such tracking, almost half are doing so based on feedback from managers, while another 41% are tracking through badge swipes, sensors or data indicating where an employee’s computer is being used. Some companies also want to use data to understand office usage patterns.

Of the companies that are tracking, 16% say they are enforcing attendance. Many want to avoid alienating workers, said Susan Wasmund, who leads CBRE’s global occupancy management practice.

Unions representing newsroom employees and technology staffers at the New York Times both sent cease-and-desist letters to company management in late August after the company indicated it could monitor badge data as part of its return-to-office efforts. Axios earlier reported the union letters.

“People don’t want to be required to come in, and they also don’t want to be surveilled,” said Goran Svorcan-Merola, an iOS developer for the Times’ games department and vice chair of the Times Tech Guild. “It’s a little bit infantilizing, in my opinion, to have to take attendance, essentially whether you’re coming in or not, rather than relying on: Are you getting your work done?”

The technology union expects to bargain over changes to return-to-office policies, he said. A Times spokeswoman, Danielle Rhoades Ha, rejected the premise that using badge-swipe information amounts to surveillance, and said the Times, like other employers, has captured attendance data for years for safety reasons, space planning or contact tracing during the pandemic. The company also continues to embrace hybrid work.

“We believe that allowing people the flexibility to work together in the office at times and remotely at other times benefits everyone,” she said.

When Google emailed employees in June saying it was going to be more closely scrutinizing attendance and sending reminders to workers who didn’t show up, there was “a lot of agitation,” said one Google engineer. A linked Q&A in the email, this person said, indicated that badge data would be used to enforce work policies in the U.S.

“The messaging felt incredibly paternalistic,” the engineer said. “It’s not an appropriate treatment of people whose jobs can be done remotely.”

Google declined to comment.

Many large companies settled on roughly three days a week in the office as they set hybrid schedules. After first trying to entice workers with meetings and free food, some companies are now threatening to punish those who don’t comply, swapping carrots for sticks, said Rob Sadow, CEO of Scoop Technologies, a software company that also tracks return-to-office efforts.

“The biggest challenge in enforcing—with a stick—policy is employees are really good and creative at finding ways around that,” Sadow said.

Part of what’s behind the tracking push, said Andrew Farah, CEO of workplace analytics company, is a striking lack of information on office utilization. “The best companies in the world have no idea how buildings are used,” said Farah, whose company provides anonymous workplace traffic data. “There’s a dude with a clipboard who wanders around once a quarter to survey space with their eyes, then make an extrapolation to a billion-dollar portfolio.”

Particularly for companies with multiple locations, many have struggled to understand what segments of their workforce are showing up at the office, when and how often, executives and corporate advisers say. These days, more companies are also keenly interested in maximizing their space efficiency, including by analyzing traffic patterns on a department-by-department basis.

At the insurer Allstate, which has embraced remote work for the majority of its employees, executives look at badge swipes not to track attendance, but to understand which spaces in offices prove more popular with employees, said Bob Toohey, chief human resources officer. Some floors filled with traditional cubicles are now rarely used, an indication Allstate should potentially give up the space or redesign it, he said.

Allstate maintains an internal report showing how offices are used based on badge swipes, Toohey said. “You know what I do with that report? I read it. I don’t then take the report and start calling people,” he said. “The only reason we do that is to understand: What’s the utilization of an office? Do we need more space or less space? It’s not to check on employees.”

Employers are generally allowed to track workers in the office, employment lawyers say. If workers want to see their badge swipe data, companies largely don’t have to hand it over, except perhaps in cases involving litigation, said Kathleen McLeod Caminiti, co-chair of the wage and hour practice group at law firm Fisher Phillips.

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Where employers go wrong is by putting too much stock in badge data or relying on it to judge an employee’s time at work or productivity, she said.

“Badge swipe data, even if it’s good data, is not indicative of people working. It just means they’re present,” she said.

Employers are out of patience with lackluster office attendance, said Ken Ashley, executive director of the tenant advisory group for Cushman & Wakefield. “People are tired of this willy-nilly approach,” he said, adding that he’s heard executives complain about “badge pirates” on their teams who come in, swipe and then promptly leave.

In an August company meeting, Amazon CEO Andy Jassy said that it isn’t right for employees to ignore a mandate to return to offices at least three days a week. Amazon has sent emails to some U.S. employees in recent months, reminding them of attendance requirements.

The company began requiring employees in offices as of May, and “we’re reiterating our expectation that people join their teammates at least three days in the office,” a spokesman said.

Jassy said last month that employees who can’t commit to the return-to-office requirements would likely not fare well at the company.

Source: September 25, 2023 | By Chip Cutter