A Boston-based startup has developed an app designed to track the in-house movements of company staff, based on wireless sensors installed in the workplace.

In-Company Sensors: Better Collaboration or Better Surveillance?

Beacons – Bluetooth Low Energy-enabled mini-sensors – have already been installed in large numbers of retail stores to help contextualise the customer’s in-store experience and squeeze more value out of the bricks-and-mortar store space. Now it is the turn of ‘smart companies’ to install the location systems on their premises. Apple, one of the first major companies to test the technology, is providing iBeacon functionality with businesses in mind. The idea behind it is not to keep a close eye on the comings and goings of staff but rather to improve collaboration in the workplace. Twin brothers Zach and Sam Dunn have made the concept a reality with their Robin software package, which enables direct interaction between staff and their physical work space. When an employee enters a room, his/her app-equipped smartphone will automatically send a signal via Bluetooth to an iBeacon sensor installed nearby, which then detects his/her presence. A key use of the system will be to facilitate company meetings – helping to locate meeting participants and identify whether a meeting room is free so that it can be booked.

Interactive meeting rooms

So far the ‘Robin-powered office’ has been implemented in a number of pilot locations, including the premises of News Corp. The New York City-headquartered newspaper publisher is trying it out to manage room availability and reservations. Moreover, using the Robin software, all the terminals in every room can be configured and monitored by a dashboard, which centralises the data on room use. In addition, the system can also use Google’s Chromecast multimedia key to control ‘smart’ thermostats and lighting in any room. However, Robin is not only intended to create interaction between the workplace and a company’s staff. The software is also designed to expand the scope of interactivity between people: staff can use the Robin software to share professional information in an automated way. However, when subscribing to use Robin they may also be asked to provide some personal information such as their email address, details of their Twitter account or their LinkedIn profile.   

Does information sharing risk breaching confidentiality?

When a meeting is due to take place, all the people listed to attend will receive a notification on their smartphones, together with any basic information that each participant would like to share with the others. Staff can however filter what they share according to the particular meeting room in which they find themselves. In addition, Robin enables content-sharing: for example a document on a Dropbox account can be synchronised on all the devices in the room as soon as the person owning the account enters the meeting, which could really help to streamline group work. But might not this automated sharing of information and precise location of individual staff on company premises in real time begin to encroach unduly on employee privacy? Sam Dunn does not see any major issues here. He draws an analogy with sharing his Facebook profile when joining a Facebook working group. In other words, he argues, it will be up to the individual user to manage the process and share only the information s/he wishes to divulge.

By Arthur de Villemandy